Chicago students still stuck at home as teachers, district squabble

CHICAGO (Reuters) - The Chicago teachers’ union told its members on Wednesday to remain at home and vowed further job actions if the district moved to discipline them, delaying a staggered reopening of schools that began earlier this month.

Pre-school and special education students, who had returned to classrooms on Jan. 11, were told there would be no school on Thursday. And the return next week of some 70,000 elementary and middle school students to in-person teaching is now in question.

Chicago Public Schools, the nation’s third-largest school district, has been trying to reopen its classrooms after students had been kept home for months by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The district, which oversees 355,000 students, ordered 10,000 teachers back to work on Wednesday despite a vote by 71% of union members to keep teaching remotely until a stronger health and safety agreement is reached.

“Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) leadership continues to direct their members who support pre-k and cluster programs to remain at home. Therefore, we must ask parents to continue keeping your children home as we are unable to guarantee adequate staffing levels to cover in-person learning,” the district said in a message to families on Wednesday evening.

On Sunday, Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson warned that if teachers do not report to their schools on Wednesday, it would be construed as an illegal strike.

“We have got to put our children first and schools are such an important part of who they are, a community’s identity,” Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said at an afternoon news conference, making her case for schools to be reopened.

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Miranda Byrd Jameson, an attorney with two children in the Chicago school district, said both sides have lost her trust and that she believes neither have the best interest of children and teachers at heart.

“It is time for both organizations to put the political differences aside, stop the public shouting contest and start working together in good faith on behalf of our children and teachers,” she told Reuters.

“Another strike, legal or illegal, hurts our kids even more.”

The possible work stoppage in Chicago comes 15 months after the city’s teachers staged an 11-day strike over overcrowded classrooms, support staff levels and pay.

In a message to teachers on Tuesday night, the union said if the district takes action against teachers who did not report, members will stop working altogether on Thursday and picket, the Chicago Tribune reported. CTU President Jesse Sharkey said if the district took any disciplinary action, union delegates would decide whether to set a strike date.

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The district had also canceled in-person classes on Wednesday for 6,500 pre-kindergarten and special education students who were given the option to take classes in their school as part of the CPS’s reopening plan.

The teachers’ union says classrooms lack proper ventilation and that the district has failed to provide cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment. The district says ventilation meets industry standards for classroom learning and that it would provide schools with adequate PPE.

The union has urged school and city officials to move quickly to vaccinate teachers. Inoculations are expected to begin in mid-February.

The district said on Wednesday in its latest proposal that it has offered to make accommodations for those teachers who have family members with medical conditions, and that it has expanded testing and prioritized vaccines for staff working in the hard-hit areas of the city.

Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago, with additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Cynthia Osterman, Matthew Lewis and Tom Hogue