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Children arrive at school

Students arrive at Concourse Village Elementary School amid the recent spike in Covid-19 cases in the Bronx, New York on January 3, 2022. (Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

Teachers Unions Call for Remote Learning, Increased Safety Measures as Covid Surges

"We want to be in our buildings educating our students—but we have a right to rigorous layered mitigation that ensures that we’re also not sacrificing our lives for our livelihoods," said one union president.

Julia Conley

Teachers in cities across the U.S. are warning that school districts are not prepared to welcome students back to in-person education safely, saying the risks are simply too high given the ferocious spread of the Omicron variant.

According to WBEZ, more than 25,000 members of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) will vote Tuesday over whether teachers will refuse to report to school buildings this week, choosing to teach remotely instead without district approval.

"We always advise people to practice physical distancing in order to avoid infection, but schoolchildren are actually required to gather in large groups every day."

At a virtual town hall held Sunday, 80% of 8,000 CTU members in attendance said they did not believe schools should be returning to in-person classes following the two-week holiday break considering the rapid spread of the highly transmissible variant.

Chicago Public Schools (CPS) provided tests to families in the district before the holiday break, but informed many parents that the tests could not be analyzed before classes began again Monday. Eighteen percent of tests that were analyzed were found to be positive.

Considering the unprecedented spread of Covid-19, the CTU last week proposed to the district that all students and staff should have to test negative before returning to school, high quality masks should be provided throughout school communities, and schools should move to remote learning if 20% of staff members are out due to illness or exposure.

Without those mitigation measures in place, the union said, CPS should move to all-remote learning for at least the first two weeks of the semester. CTU president Jesse Sharkey told WBEZ Monday that the district has said it will not meet the demands.

"We want to be in our buildings educating our students—but we have a right to rigorous layered mitigation that ensures that we’re also not sacrificing our lives for our livelihoods," said CTU President Jesse Sharkey last Thursday. “CPS has the funds—over $2 billion by their own count—to be able to do what's necessary starting Monday morning to keep people safe. If those mitigations aren't in place by Monday to protect our educators, students and families, we predict chaos."

Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations are both rising in Chicago—up 42% and 38% from the previous week, according to the latest numbers.

School psychologists, occupational therapists, and other CPS clinicians who are members of the union reported late Sunday that they have already received requests from the district to fill in as substitute teachers this week.

"This is not a plan," the members said.

In Connecticut, two teachers' unions have pushed back against the state Department of Education's insistence that schools will not be relying on remote learning during the Omicron surge, which public health experts expect to peak by the end of January.

"I understand why some would prefer us to set up another remote learning option. We simply cannot do that," Tom Moore, superintendent of West Hartford schools, wrote in a letter to parents regarding concerns about Omicron. “The state of Connecticut does not consider remote learning as an alternative this year to in-school days."

The state reported on December 23, just before the holiday break, that more than 3,000 children in K-12 schools had tested positive over the previous seven days.

Kate Dias, president of the Connecticut Education Association, told the Hartford Courant Sunday that local teachers' unions want to adopt a remote learning model for the time being, while the Board of Education Union Coalition—which represents over 60,000 public education employees in the state—advised state officials to implement rigorous safety measures in order to return to in-person schooling.

"For districts unable to provide in-person learning in a safe manner, we believe distance learning should be followed until such time physical re-entry is safe for the entire school community... No school shall operate at a capacity that does not allow it to meet the standards below," wrote the union, listing on-site vaccinations, air filtration, and "aggressive contact tracing measures" as tactics that should be used to make schools safer.

School districts in the state appear to be preparing for inevitable closures of school facilities due to illness among staff members.

"Families should be prepared for the possibility that their class may go remote, or even multiple classes and even potentially a school may go remote if there are so many cases, or if there's a lot of staffing shortages," New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker said at a press conference last Thursday, noting that the city is not considering "systemwide remote learning" as a safety precaution.

In New York City, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) called on Mayor Eric Adams to allow remote learning "for at least a couple of days" due to the number of teachers who have tested positive in recent days.

"Mayor Adams said no," Brian Gibbons, special assistant to UFT President Michael Mulgrew, tweeted Sunday evening.

New York Assemblymember Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas, who represents parts of Queens, said she would not send her child to school Monday, calling current conditions "simply unsafe."

More than 31,000 coronavirus cases are currently confirmed in New York City, with officials reporting a 33% positivity rate.

National Nurses United (NNU)—which has been at the forefront of calling on public health officials to use the precautionary principle in schools, healthcare settings, and businesses rather than waiting "for scientific proof of harm before taking action to protect people’s health"—joined the call on Monday for schools across the country to offer distance learning during the Omicron surge.

"We always advise people to practice physical distancing in order to avoid infection, but schoolchildren are actually required to gather in large groups every day," said Martha Kuhl, a pediatric nurse and secretary treasurer of NNU, the largest union of registered nurses in the United States. "The responsible thing to do to protect them is to provide an alternative to in-person school through remote learning until we get this surge under better control."


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