Chicago Teachers Union leaders are slated to vote Tuesday on whether or not teachers want to work remotely during a COVID surge without Chicago Public Schools permission, a move which could effectively shut down classes as early as Wednesday.
On Tuesday, the CTU plans to call a meeting of its House of Delegates, as well as a vote with its rank-and-file members on whether they would approve working remotely.
The union told NBC 5 the move is not a walk out or a strike, but would be only until the surge subsides, with an end date tentatively slated for Jan. 18. CPS said it would continue talks with the union.
The district's CEO, Pedro Martinez, said during an address Tuesday that if the district does vote to switch to remote learning, classes could be canceled Wednesday, but schools will remain open for families.
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"I will have to cancel classes tomorrow," he said. "It doesn't mean that the schools will be closed. The schools will be open, but I will have to cancel classes tomorrow because I can't... I have to be responsible in knowing who's going to be showing up to the buildings. And then, we will have a plan specifically for parents that will come out tomorrow in a very timely fashion about what the path forward is."
CPS leaders have rejected a district-wide return to online learning. School and city leaders argue remote classes were devastating to student learning and mentalhealth 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.
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.”
But the union has been critical of the district's safety measures.
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.
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.
At least two Chicago-area district - Niles Township High School District 219 and West Chicago District 33 - have shifted to online instruction, particularly due to staffing issues brought on by COVID infections and employee absences.
Currently, Illinois' governor said there are no plans to reinstate online learning statewide. When asked whether he believes a shift to remote learning is necessary, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Monday "the best thing" is for students to be in school safety.
"I've said all along that it's better for our students to have them in class," he said. "But safely, and so that's why we've provided and offered testing and we've offered and provided more vaccinations. And so we hope that school districts across the state will take us up on that. Many have."
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 distributed 150,000 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. 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.