A bitter feud between Chicago officials and the city’s teachers union left classrooms across the Windy City silent and empty for the second day in a row Thursday.
As the Omicron variant shatters case count records across the country, the nation’s third-largest school district—330,000 students—is embroiled in a knock-down-drag-out fight over COVID-19 safety measures and in-person learning. Union members say they want to teach remotely until the Omicron surge subsides, so they are not coming in to schools, which are left without enough staff to get through a full school day. Some schools have already canceled Friday classes in anticipation of severe staffing shortages.
Teachers say they’ve been spitefully locked out of the software accounts that allow them to teach remotely. They’ve been tweeting under the hashtag #LoriLockout, a dig at Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Negotiators for both sides have not reached an agreement to resume classes on a district-wide basis in any form after two days of talks.
The City of Chicago School District recorded its highest-yet number of new cases Tuesday, the last day of in-person classes. Roughly 9,000 students and 2,300 staff members were in isolation. Illinois reported 44,000 new cases Thursday, among its highest daily tallies.
In a heated press conference Wednesday, Lightfoot said, “We are going to fight to get our kids back in in-person learning.”
The teachers union has accused the city of failing to prioritize educators’ health after an agreement over pandemic precautions, signed in February 2021, expired. Union lawyers say the city neglected to negotiate a new agreement that allows for remote learning. The city alleges the union illegally directed its members to stay home from work in as a retaliatory tactic. Lightfoot called the union’s actions “an unlawful, unilateral strike” that the city would not pay for.
Despite the explosion of infections, the school district has filed unfair labor charges against the teachers union, calling for an end to “this illegal work stoppage,” the Chicago Tribune reports. The district requested a cease-and-desist order against the union from the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board.
District administrators wrote, “On Tuesday, January 4, 2022, the CTU illegally directed its members... not to report to work as directed but to work remotely instead from January 5 until the earlier of January 18 or when CPS meets certain health metrics.”
The union filed a similar complaint in response. Just 13 percent of Chicago Teachers Union educators showed up for work Thursday, though the number was an increase from Wednesday.
The district’s CEO, Pedro Martinez, said late Wednesday that the “very sad” situation left him “no choice” but to cancel Thursday classes, and he may have to once again.
“Under state law, we are not authorized to go remote as a district. We are not authorized,” Martinez said.
Chicago Teachers Union president Jesse Sharkey said the fight will go on: “If the mayor needs to drag us into court, you know, in order to try to force us to do what she wants, we’re going to go into court and point out that we’re doing what we think is necessary.”