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Chicago Teachers Union on verge of strike for virtual teaching during COVID-19 surge

Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Most schools nationwide are supposed to return students to the classroom this week as Christmas break ends. But Chicago teachers could upend the city's plans for in-person learning with a strike over what they say are unsafe working conditions because of a surge of coronavirus cases.

The Chicago Teachers Union will vote Tuesday on whether its more than 25,000 members will refuse to go to work in person on Wednesday and demand that they be allowed to phone in to their jobs virtually. According to WBEZ-FM, 80% of the 8,000 members who attended a CTU virtual town hall Sunday evening did not want to work in person in Chicago Public Schools under current conditions.

The union has been foreshadowing a strike for days. Last week, the union surveyed its members asking if they would "support a district-wide pause and temporary shift to remote learning." They also polled members on whether they'd be willing to "participate in a city-wide work stoppage" if the union's demands are not met.

Studies have shown that viral transmission for COVID-19 in schools is "extremely rare" and that schools can reopen safely. Additionally, virtual learning has been demonstrated to negatively impact student performance, with math and English test scores plummeting in Chicago Public Schools during the pandemic, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

Classes in Chicago resumed Monday after a two-week break for the Christmas and New Year holidays. City and district officials have vowed to keep schools open with students and teachers physically present in the classroom, potentially putting them in conflict with the union's demands.

“What we have learned from this pandemic is that schools are the safest place for students to be: we have spent over a $100 million to put mitigations in place, most CPS staff members are vaccinated, and we generally see little transmission in school settings,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a statement Monday.

"Keeping kids safely in school where they can learn and thrive is what we should all be focused on," she said.

Chicago Public Schools echoed the mayor's support for in-person learning in a statement also issued Monday. The district warned that "districtwide, unwarranted and preemptive mass school closures could actually fuel community spread." CPS also said it has been meeting with union representatives and has "reiterated that a case-by-case, school-by-school approach is the best way to approach COVID-19 concerns in schools."

The city is making its case for in-person learning as a surge of COVID-19 hospitalized 6,294 people statewide on Monday, the highest number of hospitalizations since the pandemic began, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

IDPH also reported a daily average of 23,069 new COVID cases and an average of 59 COVID-related deaths per day.

CPS maintains that safety measures including masking, contact tracing, testing, cleaning, air purifiers, and widespread vaccination are sufficient to protect teachers from serious COVID-19-related illness or death.

However, several issues with the virus test kits provided to parents for their children over winter break have complicated the debate over reopening. WBEZ reported that CPS provided 150,000 at-home testing kits for students. But many parents who tested their children and returned the sample by last week's deadline were told the tests could not be analyzed.

Parents were told via email that the tests could not be processed within the required 48-hour window "due to weather and holiday related shipping issues," WBEZ reported.

Further, more than half of the test results submitted came back as "invalid." Of the 35,831 tests completed over the past week, 24,989 were invalid and 18% came back positive, according to CPS' COVID tracker.

On top of the processing problems, CPS said that more than 100,000 of the 150,000 tests made available to parents of schoolchildren were never submitted.

The teachers' union has seized on the testing issues as justification for keeping teachers away from in-person learning. CTU has demanded that the school district require students and staff to present a negative COVID-19 test before attending in-person classes. In the absence of adequate testing, the union wants to switch to remote learning for two weeks.

“Here we are, a year later in the cold in January, performing another remote action, because [CPS] can’t get it right,” CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said Monday.

The union is also demanding high-quality masks for all students and staff and a policy to switch to virtual classes if 20% of a school's staff is in isolation or quarantine for COVID-19.

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