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Chicago nixes school for 3rd day as virus, union debate rage

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Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

Attorney Mary Bluma, a single parent, talks about having her two children back home instead of in school Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022, in Chicago. Hundreds of thousands of Chicago students remained out of school for a second straight day Thursday after leaders of the nation's third-largest school district failed to resolve a deepening clash with the influential teachers union over COVID-19 safety protocols. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

CHICAGO – Leaders of the nation’s third-largest school district canceled classes for a third consecutive day Friday as heated negotiations continued with the Chicago Teachers Union over remote learning and other COVID-19 safety measures.

The union, which voted this week to revert to online instruction, told teachers not to show up to schools starting Wednesday while both sides negotiate. The move just two days after students returned from winter break prompted district officials to cancel classes for students in the roughly 350,000-student district during negotiations, saying there's no plan to return to districtwide remote instruction.

School districts nationwide have confronted the same pandemic issues, with most opting to stay open while ramping up virus testing, tweaking protocols and other adjustments in response to the shifting pandemic. But a growing number of U.S. districts, including some large school systems, have gone back to remote learning as infections soar and sideline staff members.

In a Thursday message to parents, Chicago leaders said classes would be canceled Friday but “in-person learning and activities may be available at a small number of schools” based on how many employees report to work. A small percentage of teachers, along with substitutes, have continued to go to schools during what the district has labeled an “illegal work stoppage."

In a public letter to district officials, the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association said the district's message blindsided school leaders who had already been assured that schools would be closed Thursday and Friday.

“As school principals, we have been doing what seems like impossible work and holding it together for our students, parents, and staff members who are already exhausted,” the association said.

Some schools preemptively alerted parents earlier Thursday that they didn't have enough staff and wouldn't accept students aside from offering meal pickup in the largely low-income and Black and Latino district. The district said roughly 10% of about 21,620 teachers came to work Wednesday and by Thursday it was nearly 13%.

“Our schools are the best, safest place for students to be during this pandemic, and we are working tirelessly to get everyone back in class every day,” Schools CEO Pedro Martinez said in a statement Thursday evening. “We will continue working with CTU to resolve this situation and will provide you with ongoing updates as the week continues.”

Chicago's school leaders have rejected a return to remote learning, saying it worsens racial inequities and is detrimental to academic performance, mental health and attendance. District officials have spent about $100 million on a safety plan, including air purifiers in classrooms.

There was little sign that either side was softening — the district and union both filed labor complaints with the state this week as negotiations continued.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who has said the city is considering legal options to get teachers back in classrooms, issued a statement late Thursday saying negotiations went on most of the day and were “productive from our perspective.” The city has said that teachers who don't come to schools won't get paid. Issues on the table include more testing and metrics to trigger school closures.

The union has blasted the district for not doing enough, like botching a testing program and maintaining unreliable data on infections in schools. They’ve sought demands similar to a safety agreement put in place last year after a fierce debate. However, the district says the pandemic is different now than a year ago and requires a different response, particularly since 91% of school staff is vaccinated.

Lightfoot accused the union of politicizing a pandemic, while the union's president, Jesse Sharkey, dubbed her “Lockout Lori," because teachers haven't been able to log into remote-learning systems since early Wednesday.

“Enough is enough,” Lightfoot said Thursday morning on MSNBC. “I’m tired of the Groundhog Day appearance of everything that goes on with the Chicago Teachers Union leadership. We need partnership, we don’t need conflict. “

Sharkey said Lightfoot is wrong to blame teachers.

“We have rights to safety and we’ve been at the bargaining table for 20 months to secure those rights,” he wrote in an email to the union's roughly 25,000 members.

The district argued in a complaint to the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board that the union’s actions are an illegal work stoppage, and sought a cease-and-desist order and a ban on future illegal strikes.

The union’s complaint argued members have a right to refuse “hazardous work assignments” and accused the district of an illegal lockout by canceling classes and barring access to remote-teaching tools. It asked the board to order Chicago schools to allow remote instruction until a new safety agreement is reached.

It was unclear Thursday when the board may act, but the process could take weeks to play out. In December 2020, the board rejected the union’s request to block the district from resuming in-person instruction in January 2021.

The animosity between the city, district and teachers was familiar for Chicago parents.

The teachers union last walked off the job in 2012 and 2019, when talks with the city broke down. There was also a one-day work stoppage in 2016 over unfair labor practices.

Attendance was low in schools earlier this week with thousands of students in quarantine related to COVID-19 cases and others opting to stay home to avoid exposure. The World Health Organization likened the explosion of COVID-19 cases worldwide to a “tsunami." CPS reported 433 student infections on Tuesday, its highest daily total, according to district data.

Still, many families were frustrated by having to again make last-minute arrangements and wondered whether being out of school longer might contribute to the spread.

“It’s almost contradictory because like now these kids and their parents have to find some activities for the children when they’re not in school and they’re with other kids en masse now," said parent Mary Bluma, who has two children in Chicago schools.

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Associated Press writers Sara Burnett, Kathleen Foody and Don Babwin, and AP videographer Teresa Crawford contributed to this report.

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Follow Sophia Tareen on Twitter: https://twitter.com/sophiatareen.