Students in the nation’s third largest school district returned to class on Wednesday after Chicago public schools canceled five days of class amid a standoff with the teachers’ union over COVID-19 safety protocols.
Their return came the same day full members of the Chicago Teachers Union narrowly gave their approval to the hard-fought safety plan that includes expanded testing and measures to shut down individual schools during epidemics. It was adopted with around 56% of the vote.
Union leaders gave their provisional approval two days earlier allowing the students to return. They urged members to accept it, acknowledging that teachers had not received any initial requests, including a pledge to move to district-wide distance learning amid a wave of COVID-infections. 19.
“This vote is a clear manifestation of the boss’s displeasure,” Union President Jesse Sharkey said in a statement, referring to Mayor Lori Lightfoot. “This agreement only covers part of the security guarantees that each of our school communities deserves. The vote of our members today represents the frustration of a union and a city facing a mayor who has been simmering since the start of this pandemic.
Lightfoot and Schools CEO Pedro Martinez released a joint statement saying they were happy with the vote and that the deal would ensure “predictability and stability for the rest of the school year” in the district of around 350,000 students.
“We all agree that we must prioritize the health and well-being of everyone in our school communities, including our children, families and staff,” they said.
Chicago’s struggles to continue educating children during the omicron variant push are similar to those facing districts across the country, but the latest high-profile fight between teachers and Lightfoot, a Democrat, drew the attention from the White House and the governor’s office.
The union, which voted last week to return to online teaching, told teachers not to show up at schools from Jan.5 during talks. Lightfoot called the union action an “illegal work stoppage”. The two sides filed complaints with a state labor commission.
Lightfoot – who revealed on Tuesday that she had tested positive for COVID-19 and was isolating herself at home – has repeatedly refused to accept distance learning throughout the district. She also opposed teachers’ demands for a testing program that could randomly test all students unless their parents opt out.
For parents and students in Chicago, the return to school brought mixed emotions, as well as staff and attendance issues due to the infections.
Trinity Washington, a freshman at a high school on the northwest side of town, said she supports the teacher’s push and plans to be more careful about maintaining a mask at school . She noted that a school dean has contracted COVID-19 and is on a ventilator.
“I feel like everyone should go home and stay virtual because I feel like everyone in our building is getting sick, sick and sick,” she said.
Some schools have reported understaffing and reduced attendance with students who are sick or in compulsory isolation following close contact with someone with COVID-19. District officials said about 89% of teachers visited schools. The district’s online COVID-19 infection tracker showed more than 13,000 students and adults were in quarantine on Wednesday.
Some one-to-one classes reverted to distance education following infections within the two-day window, students returned before the union standoff. A school in the heavily Mexican neighborhood of Little Village was hit particularly hard with “up to 10 classrooms” switching to distance learning on Wednesday, according to the district.
Derrontae Gonzalez, the mother of a 5-year-old boy and 12-year-old girl in Chicago schools, said she understands why teachers have been pushing for stricter COVID-19 protocols. But she told the Chicago Sun-Times that the canceled school days were difficult, especially for her son who has a learning disability.
“I’m not worried,” Gonzalez said of the return. “I think the school is taking precautions to make sure the children are safe. And I make sure my kids have masks.
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