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Chicago schools cancel classes for fourth day as union fight enters second week

The Chicago Teachers Union is holding a "day of action" on Monday after weekend negotiations failed to produce an agreement over Covid-19 safety protocols.
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Chicago school leaders canceled classes for the fourth consecutive day on Monday as a standoff with the local teachers' union over remote learning and other Covid-19 safety protocols entered its second week.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said on Sunday that weekend negotiations had failed to produce an agreement, meaning classes would be canceled on Monday.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Teachers Union said it would be holding a "day of action" throughout the day “as negotiations for a safe return to in-person instruction continue.”

The development comes after the union accused the city of failing to do enough to ensure that students and teachers could return to school safely in the midst of rising Covid cases. It has argued that students should continue with remote learning, clashing with city officials who want students back in the classroom and claim it is one of the safest places they can be.

The Chicago battle highlights an ongoing debate across the country and around the world over whether it is safe for students and teachers to attend classes amid the spread of the highly transmissible omicron variant.

Many school districts have pushed to keep classes running, with officials in New York City's school system, the country's largest, vowing to double in-school Covid testing and ramp up safety protocols. Meanwhile school leaders elsewhere, including in New Jersey, announced temporary returns to remote learning for the start of January.

In a Twitter statement on Sunday, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said negotiations with union representatives had continued through the weekend, but had failed to produce an agreement.

"Out of fairness and consideration for parents who need to prepare, classes will be canceled again Monday," Lightfoot said. "Although we have been negotiating hard throughout the day, there has not been sufficient progress for us to predict a return to class tomorrow."

The statement came after Lightfoot appeared to express optimism on Saturday over "productive" negotiations.

She said that both she and Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez had agreed that talks "must be concluded" by the weekend's end.

Later that day, however, Lightfoot appeared to strike a different tone, tweeting that teachers' union leaders were "not listening."

"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."

Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union did not immediately respond to a request for comment from NBC News.

Image: FILE PHOTO: Chicago's Mayor Lori Lightfoot attends a science initiative event at the University of Chicago in Chicago, Illinois
Chicago's Mayor Lori Lightfoot.Kamil Krzaczynski / Reuters file

In a statement published on its website, the Chicago Teachers Union said it would be starting its "day of action" early Monday morning, with a press conference with "rank-and-file educators, nurses" and others to be live-streamed on Facebook at 7a.m. local time.

The union said the press conference would be held at Spry Elementary in Little Village, where it said "last week, 130 students were absent on Jan. 3, and more than 30 percent of students present tested positive for Covid-19."

The union said it would also be holding "citywide teach-outs, with educators signing students up for Covid-19 testing and neighborhood canvassing," with car caravans set to make their way to Chicago City Hall by around noon.

On Tuesday, the Chicago teachers' union had voted to return to virtual learning amid a surge in Covid cases in the city and district.

The move led the city to cancel classes on Wednesday, with the return to school canceled again on Thursday and Friday.

“What we wanted was to go remote for a week or two until more people can get tested because remember, suddenly there were no rapid tests anywhere and a two-hour wait for a PCR,” Nora Flanagan, a high school English teacher and mother of two children in the district who supported the union’s decision, told NBC News last week.

“Let’s take a week or two, keep everybody safe, get fewer families sick,” she said. “Let’s acknowledge that while omicron is mild in most cases, we are seeing pediatric hospitalizations of vaccinated kids and we are seeing ICU beds fill up again.”

While there has been support for the teachers' union, there has also been backlash, with a group of district parents filing a lawsuit late Thursday demanding that teachers return to the classroom and branding the union's decision in favor of remote working an "illegal strike."

Earlier in the pandemic, there had been an agreement between the city school district and union allowing schools to go remote for at least two weeks if the Covid test positivity rate in Chicago increased for seven consecutive days, the rate for each of those days was at least 15 percent higher than the rate a week prior and the rate on the seventh day was 10 percent or greater.

By Friday evening, the positivity rate in the city of Chicago was at 21.1 percent. The city updates its data at 5:30 p.m. local time every day from Monday to Friday and the next update will be made Monday evening.