Chicago teachers forced the return to virtual classes, and authorities warn that it is disastrous for children's mental health.
The union argued that the district's security protocols are lacking in the face of the new wave of coronavirus and that both teachers and students are vulnerable.
Chicago Public Schools leaders canceled classes Wednesday after the teachers union voted to switch to remote learning due to the surge in COVID-19 cases, the latest development in a growing battle over safety protocols. Pandemic in the third largest district in the country.
Although Chicago school officials have rejected a return to remote instruction across the district, saying it is disastrous for children's learning and mental health, the union argued that safety protocols are lacking and that teachers and staff alike students are vulnerable.
The Chicago Teachers Union action, approved by 73% of members, called for remote instruction until "cases drop substantially" or union leaders agree on a safety protocols agreement with the district. Union members were instructed to attempt to log into teaching systems on Wednesday. Still, no devices were distributed to students ahead of union votes, which were announced just before 11 p.m. Tuesday.
"This decision was made with great regret and a singular focus on the safety of students and the community," the union said in a statement.
However, district officials blamed the union for the late cancellation, saying that despite safety measures, including a high rate of teacher vaccinations, "our teachers are unwilling to report to work."
"We are deeply concerned about this decision, but even more concerned about its impact on the health, safety, and well-being of our students and families," the district said in a statement.
The state of instruction for the remainder of the week remained in limbo. At the same time, district leaders said a plan to "continue student learning" would come later Wednesday. School officials called the union action a "work stoppage." They said those who did not report to schools on Wednesday would not be compensated. Last year, during a similar debate, the district punished teachers who did not attend schools.
Controversial issues in the district of roughly 350,000 students include metrics that would trigger school closures. The community proposed guidelines for individual school closings, saying that safety measures like required masks, availability of vaccines, and improved ventilation make schools among the safest places for children. But the union has proposed metrics for the district-wide shutdown, citing risks to students and teachers.
On Monday, students returned to class after a two-week winter break with COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations driven by the omicron variant at record levels. School districts across the country have faced the same problem, and most have chosen to remain open.
While the union has characterized its action as a way to get better safety protocols in schools, district leaders called it an "illegal work stoppage. "A fierce battle took place this past January over similar issues that caused a rocky start to the district's return to in-person instruction after going remote for the first time in March 2020.
Schools Executive Director Pedro Martinez said the buildings would remain open for administrators, staff, and "essential services," but not an instruction for students in the district, mostly low-income, African American and Latino. In addition, district officials said schools would offer food service from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m., and COVID-19 testing would continue as scheduled, but extracurricular activities would be canceled. The district also provided a list of city sites with available daycare.
In response to the union's concerns, the district said it had provided 200,000 KN95 masks to teachers, allowing schools to bring back students' daily health screening questions and building visitors required for the academic year. Last, and that it would detail metrics for individual school closings. For example, the district said it would switch to remote learning in an elementary school if 50% of its classrooms had instructions to isolate or quarantine more than 50% of its students.
With about 25,000 members, the union had sought the same metrics for closing schools in a deal last year, which expired before the new school year began. For example, that includes a two-week district-wide hiatus on face-to-face learning if the citywide COVID-19 test positivity rate rises for seven consecutive days.
Union leaders said more security protocols were needed and that the rise in COVID-19 was causing staff shortages. The district said about 82% of its roughly 21,600 teachers showed up for work Monday, lower than usual. Still, that substitute teachers and other staff covered classes.
According to the district, approximately 100,000 students and 91% of its more than 47,000 employees in the community are vaccinated.