Opinion: CPS Blinks in the Face of CTU

Teacher's union calls for closed schools in the face of dangerous temperatures

In the face of record-breaking low temperatures, Chicago Public Schools reversed course late Sunday and cancelled school system-wide for students on Monday.

The move came amid intense pressure from the Chicago Teachers Union and many parents, who expressed concern that asking children to travel to school in sub-zero temperatures was a dangerous move.

Today, many in Chicago are thankful CTU took a stand.

For most of the day Sunday, media outlets were reporting schools would be open on Monday, although children who remained home would be given an excused absence. Students were slated to resume classes on the first day back from holiday break on Monday.

By late Sunday afternoon, however, the CTU issued a statement demanding CPS close schools due to the weather emergency, citing a predicted wind-chill factor of -45 degrees and the fact that most public and private businesses would be closed.

"We expect nothing less when it comes to paying attention to the well-being of the children and teachers we serve,” CTU president Karen Lewis said in the statement. “In light of the forecast, sending children to school in such dangerous weather conditions shouldn't even be an option for parents."

On social media and elsewhere, the debate over whether CPS should stay open raged on throughout the day Sunday. Some expressed the belief that schools are often the safest and warmest place for many children, while others recognized that not all students had access to effective winter clothing.

Many took CPS to task for the initial decision to keep schools open.

“Close the schools tomorrow, CPS,” wrote one commentator on the CPS Facebook page. “The type of cold that is coming in tonight is very dangerous. People are being told to stay in tomorrow unless it is absolutely necessary to go outside.”

Wrote another: “It is embarrassing that CPS has not CLOSED! If they were truly concerned about the students they would encourage them to stay at home and be safe!”

That the CTU decided to weigh in and was able to tip the balance in no small part was a sign of the need for a counterbalance to the often closed decision making process that holds true in much of the CPS bureaucracy. As education blogger Fred Klonsky put it:

This once again shows what the role of a real union is. There’s nothing in the contract about temperatures or weather that I know of.

But good sense and civic leadership – the ability to speak on behalf and of the city’s poor and working families when nobody else will or can – is what the CTU does.

By late evening, many parents and education advocates were praising the union for what they saw as taking a stand for student safety in extreme conditions.

One supporter wrote on Twitter: “Just got word from a friend that Chicago schools will be closed tomorrow. Good on you, @CTULocal1. Lot of grateful parents out there.”

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