Chicago Teachers Union fight continues into second week

CHICAGO (AP), -- Chicago school leaders cancelled class for a fourth day on the third largest district in the country after negotiations with teachers' unions over remote learning and other COVID-19 safety protocols failed.

Chicago Teachers Union fight continues into second week

Mayor Lori Lightfoot, and Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez stated in a joint statement Sunday night that there was not "sufficient progress" in talks to resume classes in person Monday. This would have extended disruptions into the second school week. They promised that negotiations would continue through the night.

Testing and metrics for closing schools were two of the issues that were being disputed. Chicago Teachers Union wants to return to districtwide remote instruction. Most members refuse to teach in person until an agreement is reached or the COVID-19 spike has subsided. However, Chicago leaders are against districtwide remote learning. They claim it is dangerous for students and unsafe for schools. Chicago instead chose to cancel all classes two days after students returned home from winter break.

Chicago is facing the same pandemic problems as other cities nationwide. More people are turning to remote learning because of rising infections and staff cuts. The situation in union-friendly Chicago is exacerbated by a labor dispute. This is familiar to many families from the predominantly low-income Black/Latino district, who experienced disruptions last year during a similar safety protocol fight. There was also a strike in 2019 and a one day work stoppage in 2016.

The announcement of the district of roughly 350,000 students came after principals at some schools had already informed families that their schools would be closing Monday due to staff shortages.

Martinez and Lightfoot's Sunday evening statements suggested that there had been more progress than one day before. They said that the union's latest offer was not public and they promised not to "relent". She rejected the offer that teachers should report to schools Monday in order to distribute laptops for remote learning. This would allow them to temporarily begin Wednesday. Both parties have complained to the state labor board.

Union leaders accused Lightfoot, claiming that he bullied them. They agree that in-person instruction works better but that the pandemic is forcing them to make difficult decisions. Due to isolation of teachers and students from potential exposure to the virus, cancellations led to a drop in attendance. Families also chose to leave their children at home.

"Educators don't have to be the enemy Mayor Lightfoot wants," the union stated in a statement on Sunday. It added that teachers "must be balanced by ensuring that classrooms are safe, well-resourced and healthy, with appropriate mitigation to reduce the spread COVID-19."

After Sunday's cancellation, Union leaders didn't immediately respond.

Over the weekend, there appeared to have been some progress toward a deal.

District, which considers the fight an illegal walkout, said late Saturday that it would provide more incentives for substitute teachers, KN95 masks to all teachers and students and that Illinois would provide approximately 350,000 antigen testing. Both sides were still at odds over key issues such as COVID-19 metrics, which will result in individual school closings and compensation. Even if teachers tried to log in remotely, the district stated that it would not pay them if they failed to report to schools. The union does not want any of its roughly 25.000 members to lose their pay or be disciplined.

According to district leaders, some schools may offer instruction Monday if enough staff is available. All buildings remain open for meal pickup. Only a few principals expected staff to open.

Schools leaders have proposed a $100 million safety program that includes air purifiers in every classroom. A total of 91% of school staff have been vaccinated. Masks are also required indoors.

Some classrooms have switched temporarily to remote instruction during an outbreak since the beginning of the academic year. Officials from the city's health department have rejected a widespread return to remote learning. They claim that most students who are placed in quarantine due to possible classroom exposure do not get COVID-19. To reduce isolation times, the district is running a "test-to-stay" program.

The union claims that the measures are inadequate, particularly considering the omicron-fueled spike that has disrupted the return to class and work. The union also criticised the district for failing to enroll enough students in a testing program, and not having a reliable database of COVID-19 infection cases.

The conservative Liberty Justice Center in Chicago represented several district families and filed a lawsuit against Cook County last week over the closings. More than 5,000 people signed a petition calling for an end to in-person instruction.

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