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"Remote learning saves lives" sign

Chicago Public School teachers, parents, and students protest in the neighborhood of Mayor Lori Lightfoot on September 13, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois. The mayor is under fire for locking teachers out of remote learning tools after the Chicago Teachers Union voted to move to remote learning this week to mitigate the spread of Covid-19. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Chicago Teachers Rebuke 'Incompetent' Mayor Lightfoot as Lockout Continues for Second Day

"We are between a rock and a hard place—the rock being the pandemic, the hard place being an intractable, incompetent mayor," said one Chicago Teachers Union officer.

Julia Conley

Classes across Chicago Public Schools were canceled for the second consecutive day Thursday as city officials refused to allow teachers to work remotely despite rising coronavirus cases and what the Chicago Teachers Union says are inadequate safety precautions in school facilities.

The union filed an unfair labor practices charge with the state labor relations board late Wednesday, saying Democratic Mayor Lori Lightfoot and school officials failed to put proper public health measures in place before students and staff returned to school on Monday following the holiday break.

With the district failing to provide a robust testing strategy and other measures as cases and hospitalizations surge in Chicago, driven by the highly transmissible Omicron variant, 73% of Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) members voted Tuesday to begin teaching remotely this week.

Instead of allowing remote education while a safety plan was put in place, Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) opted to cancel school completely and even shut down the district's Virtual Academy for on-line learning.

CTU leaders advised teachers to attempt to log in to the Virtual Academy Thursday and document their work as well as posting on social media "solidarity photos" of themselves "wearing red, ready to work remotely," as they pushed back against the city's false claim that the union is engaged in a work stoppage.

"They falsely claim that we're engaging in an illegal strike, when we WANT to teach but can't because they've locked us out," wrote CTU President Jess Sharkey Wednesday night in an email to members. "We have rights to safety... Please, work WITH us to set up comprehensive testing, work with us to vaccinate students, and work with us to establish basic guardrails."

"No one's saying schools should be closed forever. But maybe—just maybe—in the midst of a surge we don't blindly call for schools to stay open no matter what community case numbers or hospitalization rates look like."

Other large school districts across the country, including in Milwaukee, Atlanta, and Detroit have delayed the start of the semester or shifted to remote learning temporarily as the Omicron variant fuels the latest surge in cases.

With Chicago reporting a 23% Covid-19 positivity rate, the CTU called for all students and staff to test negative before returning to school, the district to provide high-quality masks to all, and schools to shift to remote learning if 20% of staff members or more are out due to illness or exposure. CTU members have expressed concern that when teachers are absent, their students are "corralled in auditoriums or gyms" in large numbers, according to New York Times education correspondent Dana Goldstein.

The district sent 150,000 home testing kits to families during the holiday break, but many of the tests couldn't be analyzed by January 3. Of the tests that were analyzed, 18% were positive, but a majority produced invalid results.

"We are between a rock and a hard place—the rock being the pandemic, the hard place being an intractable, incompetent mayor," Stacy Davis Gates, vice president of the CTU, told the Times Wednesday.

A two-week return to remote learning would allow district leaders to "get themselves together," Gates added.

While CTU leaders urged teachers to reach out to families to help them access testing on Thursday, Lightfoot appeared on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" where she attacked the union of trying to "politicize the pandemic" and "flex their power" in a way that is "harming our children."

"We know that when we were fully remote previously, 100,000 of our kids lost contact and disengaged," Lightfoot said. "We saw in the elementary schools the failure rate during remote learning tripled from what it was. We saw the toll of trauma and social and emotional harm to students across our system."

Also on MSNBC, journalist Mehdi Hasan on Wednesday night denounced liberals for "lecturing teachers on going back to work in schools" even as many who are able to "happily take advantage of working from home for themselves."

While the White House press corps has reduced capacity during press briefings amid the Omicron surge and members of Congress hold hearings virtually, "teachers and bus drivers and janitors—they need to go back to work in person 'for the sake of the kids,'" said Hasan.

"No one's saying schools should be closed forever," he added. "But maybe—just maybe—in the midst of a surge we don't blindly call for schools to stay open no matter what community case numbers or hospitalization rates look like."

Without sufficient mitigation methods in place, Sharkey told members in his Wednesday night email, "we know that CPS buildings aren't safe."

"By sticking together and demonstrating the strength of our solidarity to the mayor and all of Chicago, we can win the safety that Chicago's students and parents deserve," he said. "When we fight, we win."

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