Chicago Teachers Union Votes To Go Remote During Omicron Surge | Education News

Classes were canceled Wednesday in Chicago, the nation’s third largest school district, as union leaders and city officials failed to reach an agreement on how to run schools safely in the country. amid the surge in coronavirus cases – a stalemate cemented with a late-night Chicago Teachers Union vote that could prevent students from learning in person until mid-January.

“Right now, going to school puts us at risk, puts our students and our families at risk,” union president Jesse Sharkey said at a press conference Wednesday morning. “This is the simple truth of the matter. It is a virus that is raging in the city.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has dismissed claims by union officials that the entire district should operate remotely until the rapid spread of the highly transmissible variant of omicron wears off or until municipal authorities apply more stringent security protocols.

“I cannot stay here in good conscience as the mayor of this city,” she said, “and tell you that it makes sense to shut down an entire system. If I thought that was the If I heard that from our public health experts, then I would be the first to tell you that this is what we need to do. ”

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The union had asked Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez to bless a proposal that would allow a switch to virtual learning if 20% or more of school staff were in isolation or quarantine due to an illness. infection with COVID-19 or due to close contact who became infected, or when a safety committee justified the change due to high levels of infection or failure to follow safety protocols.

But Lightfoot and Martinez did not give in to the union’s demands. Instead, they came up with a proposal to switch to distance learning if 40% or more of teachers are absent for two days due to COVID-19 and those absences remain above 30% with the use of substitutes. They said they would also approve distance learning if half of the classes in an elementary school have 50% or more students in quarantine, and if 50% or more of students in a high school are in quarantine.

The offer also included 200,000 KN95 masks for staff, the continuation of optional tests in all schools for asymptomatic pupils and staff at a rate of at least 30,000 tests per week.

The tender was in stark contrast to the security protocols the union hoped to obtain. And on Tuesday night, 73% of the union’s 25,000 members voted in favor of remote working until Jan. 18 or until the current wave of infections caused by omicron falls below the threshold for shutting down. schools from last year.

“What we are seeing is a situation where we have been failed by the mayor, failed by the public health unit, and the teachers and school staff have decided that the only thing we can control is whether we enter. in buildings, ”Sharkey said. “We say we want to teach and we want to do what’s right for the students and we’re ready to do it remotely starting today. If you want to take us back to the buildings, do some testing. “

Last school year, Chicago’s threshold for a district-wide school closure was a city-wide test positivity rate of 10% or more and a consequent increase in the rate of seven days . The city-wide positive rate currently stands at 23%, up from 17% last Friday.

The stalemate leaves some 340,000 students and their families without a clear understanding of what to expect over the next few days.

While schools will be open to receive students and provide meals and health care on Wednesday, classes are canceled. Going forward, it’s still unclear whether the district will allow distance learning – a decision that requires special state approval – or whether a full work stoppage will occur while negotiations continue.

The deadlock, which union leaders and city officials have tried to avoid through repeated negotiations since the summer, marked the third major dispute between the Chicago Teachers Union and Lightfoot since the start of the pandemic.

Earlier Tuesday, after spending the day negotiating with union officials, Lightfoot said she was opposed to the suspension of in-person learning and lamented the academic, social and emotional loss suffered when the city closed its schools at the start of the pandemic and more than 100,000 students completely disengaged.

“Why the hell, when we don’t need a break, would we take a break and risk falling back into the same old trap?” ” she asked.

“The worst thing we can do is shut down the whole system,” she said. “We need to focus on working together to get children immunized. What is different now from previous outbreaks is that we have immunized.”

But given how highly transmissible the omicron variant is and the main test misfires the district faced – in which the vast majority of COVID-19 tests given to parents before the winter break could not be analyzed in due to weather and traffic-related shopping issues during the holidays – union members said holding classes in person during the outbreak was irresponsible.

On Tuesday evening, Lightfoot and Martinez held an additional press conference ahead of the union vote in which they toasted the union for letting parents scramble to find alternative child care plans.

“We shouldn’t be in this place anymore,” she said. “We should be at the table, we should be negotiating in good faith. We should come to a resolution. But what we shouldn’t be doing is allowing CTU leaders to shut down an entire school system. “

The mayor argued that there was no reason to shut down the entire district when they had enough data to understand which communities are most affected by the omicron surge.

“Today, during the vaccine era, how individual schools are experiencing this increase in omicron is not universal,” Lightfoot said. “It’s different. And the deciding factor is the level of vaccination school by school. Thanks to the vaccine, we have the tools to be very strategic, surgical, to analyze where we need to move a classroom or maybe even a room. whole school towards distance learning. ”

“What I do know is that there is no basis in the data, science or common sense for us to shut down an entire system when we can do it surgically and do it at the school level. if necessary, ”she said.

Chicago Health Commissioner Allison Arwady agreed, though the city has struggled to increase vaccination rates among children. Currently, 34% of 5 to 11 year olds have received at least one dose and 62% of 12 to 17 year olds have received two doses.

Even still, Arwady pointed out that research still shows that schools do not promote the spread of the virus.

“When I think of a city that’s open right now, what world would we think of closing something essential like in-person education when we’ve seen the negative effects when our bars stay open? Arwady asked. “No public health leader in the world at this point thinks that makes sense. “

“Across the country there are many places with higher positivities, including New York City, and their schools are open,” she added.

Negotiations are expected to resume Wednesday afternoon.

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