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Chicago Public Schools cancels classes after union backs remote learning

The move in the nation’s third-largest school district comes amid an escalating battle over pandemic safety protocols in schools.

CHICAGO — Classes in Chicago’s public schools were canceled Wednesday after the teachers union voted to switch to remote learning because of the latest Covid-19 surge, district officials said.

The move in the nation’s third-largest school district comes amid an escalating battle over pandemic safety protocols in schools. The status of instruction for the remainder of the week was in limbo. The union’s action, approved by 73 percent of members, called for remote instruction until “cases substantially subside” or union leaders approve an agreement for safety protocols with the district.

“This decision was made with a heavy heart and a singular focus on student and community safety,” the union said in a statement.

As local officials and teachers debate the issue, Chicago parents are split on what's best for their children. 

Ryan Griffin, a parent who has two children in kindergarten and second grade, said remote learning “does not work.”

“We’re talking about putting kindergarten-aged children in front of screens for seven-and-a-half hours a day,” Griffin said. “Frankly, there’s no amount of preparation — parents are not trained to do this.”

Cortney Ritsema, who has children in kindergarten and third grade, said she did not send them to school until December when they were fully vaccinated. But as of this Monday, she has stopped sending them in because of the surge, and she and her husband plan to keep them home for awhile. 

“We were getting notification after notification that there was a case in our children’s school,” Ritsema said. “If community spread was lower… I’ll definitely send my kids because the benefit to them being in class and being able to be with their peers greatly outweighs the risk.”

Both Griffin and Ritsema started organizing like-minded parents last year, with Griffin's group supporting in-person learning and Ritsema's opposing it during the surge.

Ritsema said she fears that “we haven’t been in a place with community spread this high before.”

And Griffin can’t stop asking himself, "When does this end?”

“If this is the way we’re going to behave to every variant, our kids can’t count on our schools,” he said said. 

Chicago Public Schools officials have insisted on keeping all schools open for in-person class, saying remote instruction during the pandemic has been disastrous for children’s learning and mental health. But the union argued that the district’s safety protocols are lacking and both teachers and students are vulnerable.

Contentious issues in the roughly 350,000-student district include metrics that would trigger school closures. The district proposed guidelines for individual school closures, saying safety measures like required masks, availability of vaccines and improved ventilation make schools among the safest places for kids to be. But the union has proposed metrics for districtwide closure, citing risks to students and teachers.

Students returned to class Monday after a two-week winter break with Covid-19 infections and hospitalizations fueled by the omicron variant at record levels. School districts nationwide have grappled with the same issue, with most opting to stay open.

While the union has characterized the vote as a return to remote instruction, district leaders called it a “walkout” and “illegal work stoppage.” A contentious battle took place last January over similar issues causing a bumpy start to the district’s return to in-person instruction after first going remote in March 2020.

Schools CEO Pedro Martinez said buildings would remain open regardless of the union vote, saying buildings were open for administrators, staff and “essential services,” but not instruction for students. Mayor Lori Lightfoot also signaled that teachers who did not show up to work would be placed on “no pay status.”

Roughly 100,000 students and 91 percent of the district's staff members are vaccinated, according to the district.