Chicago school leaders cancel classes for fourth day

CHICAGO — Chicago school leaders canceled class for a fourth day in the nation’s third-largest district as negotiations with the teachers’ union over far away learning and safety protocols failed to produce an agreement over the weekend.

The announcement came as the principals of some schools had already notified families that their schools would be closed for instruction Monday. 

Disputed issues included testing and metrics to close schools. The Chicago Teachers Union wants the option to revert to districtwide far away instruction, and most members have refused to teach in-person until there’s an agreement, or the latest COVID-19 spike subsides. But Chicago leaders reject districtwide far away learning, saying it’s detrimental and schools are safe. Instead, Chicago opted to cancel classes as a whole two days after students returned from winter break. 

Chicago Public Schools confront the same pandemic issues as other districts nationwide, with more reverting to far away learning as infections soar and staff members are sidelined. But the situation in union-friendly Chicago has been amplified in a labor argument that’s familiar to families in the mostly low-income Black and Latino district who have seen disruptions during a similar safety protocol fight last year, a 2019 strike and a one-day work stoppage in 2016. 

“What the teachers’ union did was an illegal walkout. They abandoned their posts and they abandoned kids and their families,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet The Press.” “We are working diligently every singe day at the bargaining table to thin the differences and get a deal done.” 

Her statements weren’t as dismissive as a day earlier when shortly after the union made its latest offer public, she said, “CTU leadership, you’re not listening” and vowed not to “relent.” The offer she rejected included far away learning starting Wednesday. Both sides have filed complaints to a state labor board.

Union leaders accused Lightfoot of bullying, saying they agree that in-person instruction is better, but the pandemic is forcing difficult decisions. Attendance was down ahead of the cancelations due students and teachers in isolation from possible exposure to the virus and families opting to keep children home voluntarily.

“Educators are not the enemy Mayor Lightfoot wants them to be,” the union said in a statement Sunday, adding that the desire to be in the classroom “must be balanced by ensuring those classrooms are safe, healthy and well-resourced, with the proper mitigation necessary to reduce the spread of COVID-19.” 

There was some progress.

The district said late Saturday it will allow more incentives for substitute teachers, provide KN95 masks for all teachers and students, and that Illinois will provide about 350,000 antigen tests. But both sides remained far apart on meaningful issues including COVID-19 metrics that will rule to individual school closures and compensation. The district said it won’t pay teachers failing to report to schools, already if they tried to log into far away teaching systems. The union doesn’t want any of its approximately 25,000 members to be disciplined or lose pay.

District leaders have said some schools, where enough staff showed up, may offer instruction Monday already without an agreement; all buildings have remained open for meal pickup. However, only a handful of principals said they had staff to open and many preemptively canceled Monday classes, anticipating shortages.

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