Public school students in Chicago returned to classes Monday after winter break, but the latest COVID-19 surge has escalated a fight between the district and teachers union over safety protocols that could disrupt classes in the nation's third-largest district later this week.
Chicago Public Schools leaders have rejected a district-wide return to online learning. But the Chicago Teachers Union has been critical of the district's safety measures and planned votes Tuesday in support of remote teaching that could effectively shut down classes as early as Wednesday.
During a similar debate last year, the district punished teachers who didn't show up to work in person by locking them out of computer systems.
School and city leaders argue remote classes were devastating to student learning and mental health in the roughly 350,000-student district. They insist safety protocols including required masks, regular testing, improved ventilation and vaccines make schools safe for children.
Get Chicago local news, weather forecasts, sports and entertainment stories to your inbox. Sign up for NBC Chicago newsletters.
District leaders said individual classes and schools with outbreaks may temporarily go online as they have for months, but the district would continue in person.
“We need to keep our kids in schools, which is what we’re going to do in Chicago,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Monday on CNBC. She dismissed the concerns as “saber-rattling by teachers union leadership.”
Nationwide, schools have been grappling with the same issues and a handful of school districts have returned to online learning. In Illinois, Peoria Public Schools extended winter break by one week and schools in East St. Louis announced two weeks of remote learning after winter break.
CTU leaders argued that the current surge is making teachers and students more vulnerable and the district has already botched safety protocols including a holiday testing program and data collection. The union's demands had included requiring all students and staff to have a negative COVID-19 test before attending classes after the two-week winter break.
“I am so pissed off that we have to continuously fight for the basic necessities, the basic mitigations,” Stacy Davis Gates, the union's vice president, said Monday outside an elementary school where teachers planned to work from home.
The district distributed150,000 at-home test kits during the break. But after the district extended a deadline to return them for processing, thousands were declared invalid because of the time lag. CPS has said it will work with testing vendors to address the issue.
The back-and-forth between the union and district comes amid record-breaking COVID-19 infections worldwide. In Illinois, a record number of COVID-19 patients were being hospitalized. Gov. J.B. Pritzker has already asked hospitals to pause elective and non-emergency procedures in anticipation of more COVID-19 patients and beefed up staffing at vaccination centers.
Also starting Monday, the city of Chicago and surrounding Cook County began requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccines at indoor venues including restaurants, gyms and museums.
Follow Sophia Tareen on Twitter: https://twitter.com/sophiatareen