Chicago Teachers Clash With Biden’s Aim to Keep Schools Open
(Bloomberg) -- The Chicago Teachers Union’s move to halt in-person instruction amid surging Covid cases has not only escalated its clash with city officials but has put it at odds with the White House.
The nation’s third-largest school system canceled classes for as many as 330,000 students on Thursday for the second-straight day after the union and school officials didn’t reach an agreement on mitigation measures. The union voted late Tuesday to shift to remote learning, and the district has called it an “illegal strike.”
“The safest place for kids to be in the pandemic is in-person, in our schools,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said during a press conference late Wednesday. “We are standing firm, and we are going to fight to get our kids back in in-person learning, period, full stop. We owe that to our children who suffered learning losses” when the district was fully remote.
President Joe Biden has been encouraging schools across the country to stay open, advocating for so-called “test-to-stay” policies to keep children in class. The administration has been in “regular contact” with U.S. school stakeholders, according to White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki.
“We are more than equipped to ensure schools are open,” said Psaki during a briefing with reporters on Wednesday. “We’re going to keep our children and educators who selflessly serve their community safe, but ensure that children are not enduring the mental health impact of not being in school, that there are not gaps in learning. This includes schools everywhere, including in Chicago.”
Biden pushed for $130 billion in the American Rescue Plan Act funding for schools to implement mitigation strategies, including $10 billion for testing that’s been distributed to states, according to Psaki. While closings are increasing, currently only 4,561 of about 130,930 total schools tracked are shuttered, according to Burbio, which tracks closures.
In Chicago, where the citywide Covid-19 positivity rate now tops 23%, the union is demanding mitigation like more testing. Through an electronic ballot, 73% of the union’s members favored the action, which Lightfoot and school officials slammed as harmful to the city’s children.
A union spokesperson didn’t have an immediate response to Psaki’s comments. Remote teaching will end when the current “surge in cases substantially subsides” or when the mayor signs an agreement “establishing conditions for return that are voted on and approved” by the union’s house of delegates, according to the union’s posts on Twitter.
“The schools were very difficult places to be,” said Kirstin Roberts, a preschool teacher at Chicago Public Schools’s Brentano Elementary Math and Science Academy, who voted in favor of remote learning. “There were worries about Covid and extremely short staffing. We are trying to keep the schools intact and kids healthy enough so we can come back to in-person learning.”
Chicago’s fight marks the latest in a series of conflicts between the union, the schools and the mayor. In 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.
The district is still negotiating with the union, Chicago Public Schools Chief Executive Officer Pedro Martinez said Wednesday. The district plans to increase testing and plans to switch individual classrooms or schools to remote if needed. Its recent mass testing plan, however, was largely unable to provide valid results.
The city has filed an unfair labor practice complaint and is considering all of its options, Lightfoot said in response to a reporter’s question about any legal actions against the union. The city will make a determination shortly depending on how bargaining goes, but would prefer to reach a deal with the union. The district is planning to dock the pay of union members who don’t report to school buildings. Principals can offer in-person instruction as soon as Friday if enough staff show up, Martinez said.
In New York, Mayor Eric Adams has also pushed to keep schools open. Teachers in New York City schools, the largest district in the country, returned to classrooms on Monday even after some parents, teachers and union officials pushed back against the mayor’s decision to reopen public schools without required negative tests or remote options.
In a letter to members on Sunday, United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew said the union is pushing the mayor for a temporary remote option amid spiking cases and staff shortages. Citywide, there have been over 38,000 cases among students and staff since Dec 24, according to city Department of Education data. That compares to more than 22,000 cases from Sept. 13 through Dec. 23, according to the city’s data.
On Wednesday, Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Pierluisi announced plans to postpone the start of the commonwealth’s public schools by two weeks out of “an abundance of prudence.” The delay give students five and older time to get their second shot by the end of January, a requirement for public-school students on the Caribbean island to attend class.
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