Public school officials in Chicago cancelled classes for Wednesday amid a clash with the teachers’ union, whose members had threatened to stay home in a bid to force online teaching during a coronavirus surge.
Union members had criticised the district’s response to the Omicron variant, which has pushed cases in the city to record levels, and said conditions in classrooms were unsafe.
They voted on Tuesday to refuse to report to school buildings, just two days after returning from winter break.
Mayor of Chicago Lori Lightfoot said, however, that reverting to online schooling was unacceptable and unnecessary, and her administration decided to call off class altogether – keeping the buildings open for emergency child care – rather than return to virtual teaching.
“Nobody signs up for being a home-schooler at the last minute,” Ms Lightfoot said. “We can’t forget about how disruptive that remote process is to individual parents who have to work, who can’t afford the luxury of staying home.”
Ms Lightfoot, a Democrat, urged teachers to report to work and suggested they were considering an illegal work stoppage. The Chicago Teachers’ Union said late on Tuesday night that 73 per cent of members who voted favoured pausing in-person classes.
Like other school systems, Chicago has had to confront a shortage of tests and a far-from-universal vaccination rate among students. There have been large numbers of staff members calling in sick and widespread anxiety. Other US districts, including in Cleveland, Milwaukee and Atlanta, have also gone online temporarily, but without a public labour dispute.
“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, the union’s vice-president, said this week. “We said a two-week pause so they could get themselves together, have the proper communication, put in the necessary mitigations.”
Coronavirus cases have skyrocketed in Chicago to their highest level since the pandemic began. But as in the rest of the country, vaccinated adults have had lower rates of hospitalisation and death, while children of all ages – regardless of vaccination status – have overwhelmingly been spared severe outcomes.
In addition, data from Chicago and elsewhere shows that in-school transmission of Covid-19 has been limited, with a majority of teacher and student cases originating outside school buildings. More than 90 per cent of Chicago public schools employees are fully vaccinated.
Still, members of the powerful Chicago Teachers Union have accused the school district of failing to adjust to Omicron, and the growing threat of breakthrough infections. During the holiday break, they had asked for either universal PCR testing of students and staff or a two-week transition to remote learning.
Pedro Martinez, the district’s chief executive, said Tuesday that he would be more aggressive about shutting down school buildings if large numbers of staff and students there had coronavirus infections. But he pushed back against a district-wide shutdown, suggesting that misinformation was at the root of anxiety over reopening.
He spoke of the district’s $100 million (€88 million) investment in improving building ventilation, and efforts to monitor air quality in each classroom.
Dr Allison Arwady, the city’s public health commissioner, said she remained “extremely comfortable” with students learning inside schools. “We’ve got to do risk-benefit analysis here and, at least among children, we have to think of this as similar to flu.”
But the district’s bungled effort to test tens of thousands of students over winter break has added to parents’ and teachers’ concerns. Most of the 150,000 mail-in PCR tests given to students were never returned. Of the 40,000 or so tests that were posted in, a majority produced invalid results.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised schools to avoid quarantines and closures by using a protocol known as test-to-stay, in which close contacts of positive virus cases take two rapid antigen tests in a week; only those who test positive must stay home.
But officials in Chicago, like those in many cities and towns across the country, said they did not have nearly the number of rapid tests they needed. Dr Arwady said the city had not received new shipments of the rapid tests since November, despite outstanding orders. – This article originally appeared in the New York Times