Virus Outbreak Chicago Schools

Attorney Mary Bluma, a single parent, talks about having her two children back home instead of in school Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022, in Chicago. Hundreds of thousands of Chicago students remained out of school for a second straight day Thursday after leaders of the nation's third-largest school district failed to resolve a deepening clash with the influential teachers union over COVID-19 safety protocols. 

CHICAGO (AP) — Classes in Chicago have been canceled for a third consecutive day amid an ongoing fight with the teachers union over remote learning and other COVID-19 safety protocols.

Families in the nation’s third-largest district were notified of Friday’s cancelation on Thursday evening. The Chicago Public Schools statement noted that “in-person learning and activities may be available at small number of schools,” but to check before sending children to buildings.

Hundreds of thousands of Chicago students remained out of school Thursday after leaders of the nation's third-largest school district failed to resolve a deepening clash with the influential teachers union over COVID-19 safety protocols.

The Chicago Teachers Union, which voted to revert to online instruction, told teachers to stay home starting Wednesday during the latest COVID-19 surge while both sides negotiate.

The move just two days after students returned from winter break prompted district officials to cancel classes. Chicago Public Schools, like most other districts, has rejected a return to remote learning, saying it worsens racial inequities and is detrimental to academic performance, mental health and attendance. District officials insist schools can safely remain open with protocols in place.

In Chicago, there was little sign that either side was softening — the district and union both filed labor complaints with the state this week. Negotiations continued Thursday.

School districts nationwide have confronted the same pandemic issues, with most opting to stay open while ramping up virus testing, tweaking protocols and other adjustments in response to the shifting pandemic.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot accused the union of politicizing a pandemic, while the union's president, Jesse Sharkey, dubbed her “Lockout Lori," because teachers haven't been able to log into remote-learning systems since early Wednesday.

The pattern is familiar for Chicago parents in the largely Black and Latino district serving about 350,000 kids. The teachers union has threatened to strike during contentious bargaining over school conditions for decades, and last walked off the job in 2012 and 2019, when talks with the city broke down. There was also a one-day work stoppage in 2016 over unfair labor practices.

Many families were frustrated by having to again make last-minute arrangements and wondered whether being out of school might contribute to the spread.

“It’s almost contradictory because like now these kids and their parents have to find some activities for the children when they’re not in school and they’re with other kids en masse now," said parent Mary Bluma, who has three children in Chicago schools. "So it’s almost like, oh, there’s probably a better chance they’re going to spread COVID or, you know, get sick from other kids because now we’re not in a structured environment like a classroom where there are rules in place.”

District officials said Thursday that they were “working around the clock” to find a solution and would announce Friday's plan by the end of the day. Schools CEO Pedro Martinez had already said some students may be able to start returning to schools Friday depending on how many staff members show up, but the situation would vary by school.

“If schools believe they will have enough staff Friday, they may begin today to invite families back on Friday for academic services,” read a Thursday afternoon statement from the district. “We ask that parents do not send children to school without instructions from their child’s school.”

The district said roughly 10% of about 21,620 teachers came to work Wednesday and by Thursday it was nearly 13%. By Thursday afternoon, some city schools had already started notifying parents that they didn’t have enough employees to open to students Friday.

Lightfoot's first term as mayor has been marred by three high-stakes clashes with the teachers' union, including the 2019 strike that lasted for 11 school days and disagreement over COVID-19 safety protocols to begin the 2020 school year.

"Enough is enough," Lightfoot said during a Thursday morning interview on MSNBC. "I’m tired of the Groundhog Day appearance of everything that goes on with the Chicago Teachers Union leadership. We need partnership, we don’t need conflict. “

Sharkey said Lightfoot is wrong to blame teachers.

“We have rights to safety and we’ve been at the bargaining table for 20 months to secure those rights,” he wrote in an email to members. “We haven’t shifted the goal posts one bit; in fact, we’ve been saying the same thing for months: Please, work WITH us to set up comprehensive testing, work with us to vaccinate students, and work with us to establish basic guard rails.”

The district argued in a complaint to the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board that the union's actions are an illegal work stoppage, and sought a cease and desist order and a ban on future illegal strikes.

The union's complaint argued members have a right to refuse “hazardous work assignments" and accused the district of an illegal lockout by canceling classes and barring access to remote-teaching tools. It asked the board to order Chicago schools to allow remote instruction until a new safety agreement is reached.

It was unclear Thursday when the board may act, but the process could take weeks to play out.

In December 2020, the board rejected the union’s request to block the district from resuming in-person instruction in January 2021.

Talks are focused on metrics that would trigger school closures and more COVID-19 testing. For instance, school leaders support remote learning only at the classroom and school level when there are outbreaks, as has been the case this year, versus a districtwide switch to remote learning which the union supports.

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Associated Press writers Sara Burnett, Kathleen Foody and Don Babwin, and AP videographer Teresa Crawford contributed to this report.

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Follow Sophia Tareen on Twitter: https://twitter.com/sophiatareen

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