Chicago schools postpone in-person classes over COVID-19 safety plan

MONDAY (Reuters) - Chicago Public Schools on Sunday delayed the resumption of in-person classes for thousands of elementary and middle school students by at least a day as the district and teachers failed to reach an agreement on a COVID-19 safety plan.

FILE PHOTO: An exterior view shows Brentano Elementary Math & Science Academy in Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood, as Chicago Public Schools suspended in-person learning after Chicago Teachers Union members voted to work remotely due to concerns around the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) precautions in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., January 27, 2021. REUTERS/Eileen Meslar/File Photo

The third-largest school district in the United States told the parents of 62,000 elementary and middle school students who opted to begin taking some of their classes in their schools on Monday to stay home, saying it hopes to resume in-person classes for those students on Tuesday.

The parents of 5,200 pre-kindergarten and special education students who began taking in-person classes on Jan. 11 were also told to keep their children home on Monday.

The decision to postpone in-person classes comes after the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and the Chicago Teachers Union, representing 28,000 public school educators, failed to reach an agreement despite months of negotiations. The two sides have been at odds on teachers demands for stronger safety protocols to prevent the spread of the virus inside the classroom.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said on Sunday that the two sides have agreed on health and safety protocols, ventilation in schools, contact tracing and creating health committees.

“We need a renewed sense of urgency on the part of CTU leadership,” she said, noting that talks stalled on Sunday.

The union said the two sides remain apart on testing for teachers and students, teacher vaccinations and infection metrics used to decide when to close schools are also on the table.

It also said it needs accommodations for teachers to work remotely if they suffer from or live with people who have medical conditions.

“We are disappointed the way this has gone,” said CTU President Jesse Sharkey, during a news conference late on Sunday, vowing to continue to negotiate. “It’s been a frustrating process ... we are at the phase of negotiations where we have some really hard issues left.”

Tensions between the two sides grew over the last week after rank-and-file members voted 71% in favor of staying remote and not going back into their schools until their needs are met. The union also has threatened to stop working altogether and picket if the district retaliates against any of them who failed to report to school buildings.

CPS CEO Janice Jackson on Sunday night ordered teachers to report to work in-person on Monday and warned those that do not have a valid reason for their absence will be considered absent without leave. She also said they would be locked out of their remote systems on Monday if they do not report to work.

Similar labor disputes have unfolded across the U.S., pitting teacher unions against district officials over plans to reopen, almost a year after the virus shut down schools for 50 million students nationwide.

CPS devised a plan to gradually bring back younger students to in-person learning this winter, but it has yet to announce when high school students will have the option to return to school buildings.

Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; editing by Diane Craft