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Classes for Chicago students are in limbo as teachers, mayor wrangle over omicron

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has called the teachers' refusal to work in-person amid the recent COVID-19 surge an "illegal walkout."
Youngrae Kim
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has called the teachers' refusal to work in-person amid the recent COVID-19 surge an "illegal walkout."

Updated January 10, 2022 at 11:38 AM ET

A dispute between the Chicago public school system and its teachers union has dragged on with the two sides continuing to negotiate for an end to a work stoppage by the city's educators.

Public school students in Chicago aren't learning again Monday, as the bitter standoff means classes are canceled for the fourth day.

Teachers began refusing to show up for their jobs in person on Wednesday amid skyrocketing COVID-19 cases in the city, prompting the cancellation of classes for roughly 300,000 students in the nation's third-largest school district.

Neither side has announced an end to the dispute as the stalemate enters a second week.

The increasingly contentious row centers on whether it's safe for students, teachers and staff to return to schools as the highly contagious omicron variant drives record infections across the nation.

The Chicago Teachers Union has called for a series of additional safety measures to prevent in-school transmission of COVID-19, such as a weekly testing program. So far, the city has refused to agree to all of the union's demands, and it rejected teachers' calls for remote schooling last week, instead canceling classes outright.

"[Y]ou're not listening," Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot told the union in a tweet on Saturday.

"The best, safest place for kids to be is in school. Students need to be back in person as soon as possible," she said. "That's what parents want. That's what the science supports. We will not relent."

A day earlier, Lightfoot said she and Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez thought bargaining with the teachers' union was "productive," but had to conclude over the weekend.

In addition to testing, the union said in a wide-ranging proposal on Saturday that it would return to classrooms on Jan. 18 if the district provided KN95 masks to staff members and students, switched back to remote learning if the city's COVID-19 positivity rate hit a certain threshold and agreed to a series of other proposals.

"Our union is in a position of strength, and as we know, the mayor insists she won't budge — right up until she does," the union said in a statement. "Right now, she's talking tough but with little leverage, particularly when so many see what we're offering as a reasonable package of compromises to secure in-person schooling *and* more safety for students, families, educators, and communities."

The district, which has called the union's action an "illegal strike," announced on Saturday that it was rejecting parts of the latest proposal. It said students and teachers should return to classrooms as soon as possible and that it would implement a testing program only with explicit parental consent for each child.

"We haven't sat idly by and let COVID race through our schools," Lightfoot said in an appearance on NBC's Meet the Press on Sunday, defending the district's response to the pandemic. "When there's been a necessity to shut down a classroom or shut down a school to go to remote learning, we've done that."

The district rejected other parts of the proposal as well but agreed to some union demands, such as providing KN95 masks and offering monetary incentives to substitute teachers.

COVID-19 cases are rising across the country as omicron spreads, including in Chicago where cases were up 16% last week compared with the week before.

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Joe Hernandez
[Copyright 2024 NPR]