(Bloomberg) — Chicago schools will shut down classes Wednesday if the teachers’ union votes to shift to remote learning, escalating its clash with Mayor Lori Lightfoot who wants to keep the nation’s third-largest district open amid nationwide staffing shortages as Covid cases surge.
The union’s House of Delegates is expected to vote on the measure and then the broader membership is set to cast ballots through about 9 p.m. local time. The union is demanding additional mitigation like more testing to prevent the spread of Covid-19 given the omicron variant has pushed case numbers to a record. The district has said it is taking additional steps to keep students and staff safe.
The city is “going to continue to work in good faith to try and get a deal done,” Lightfoot said during an unrelated press conference on Tuesday. “The worst thing that we can do is shut the entire system down,” she said, adding that the “best place, the safest place for our children to be, is in a classroom everyday.”
Like New York Mayor Eric Adams, Lightfoot has pushed to keep the city’s schools open. School closings are accelerating in other parts of the U.S. Large districts around Atlanta, Detroit and Prince George’s County in Maryland are adopting remote instruction. At least 3,229 schools closed in the first week of January, according to Burbio, which tracks closings.
The district plans to “double down” on protection strategies including vaccination, testing, contact tracing, universal masking, social distancing, hand hygiene, cleaning and air quality. It also will switch classrooms or schools to remote if needed to prevent spread. The school district’s mass testing plan, however, has hit some snags with most of its at home tests unable to provide valid results.
If the vote Tuesday leads to a “walk out,” classroom instruction will be cancelled on Wednesday, but school buildings will be open, Chicago Public Schools Chief Executive Officer Pedro Martinez said Tuesday. He said he’s been “frustrated” by misinformation that’s fueled anxiety among parents and staff that the schools are not safe when data shows otherwise.
“The children are safe and safer in schools, when we look at Covid cases in the schools versus the community,” Martinez said during a press conference.
The district is committed to reaching an agreement with the Chicago Teachers Union but if union members vote to teach remotely, next steps for parents will be provided on Wednesday, Martinez said.
A vote not to report to buildings would be an “illegal work action,” the district said in an emailed statement on Tuesday.
“A vote to stop reporting to work would cause profound harm to children’s learning and health and be another damaging blow to the well being of our students and their families,” according to the statement.
The fight marks the latest in a series of conflicts between the union and Chicago Public Schools and the mayor. In late 2019, the union held its longest strike since 1987 to demand higher pay as well as more nurses and social workers in schools. After the winter break in early 2021, the union’s actions led to a delayed and phased-in return to school.
“What we need is what we are going to fight for,” Stacy Davis Gates, the union’s vice president, said during a press conference outside a school on Monday. She said Lightfoot and the district need to do more. “We are going to fight for the mitigations.”