Chicago public school students returning to classrooms amid COVID surge

Christopher Dilts/Bloomberg via Getty Images

(CHICAGO) — More than 350,000 public school students in Chicago are expected to resume in-person learning on Wednesday after a tentative agreement was reached between the school district and the Chicago Teachers Union to bolster classroom safety amid a wave of COVID-19 infections.

A deal was struck Monday night to end nearly a week of in-classroom cancellations and remote learning. Tuesday marked the fifth day students have been out of classrooms after a long holiday break.

The more than 25,000 teachers and staff in the nation’s third-largest school district are to return to their schools on Tuesday to prepare for reopening classrooms.

Negotiations between the CTU and the district focused on demands to expand student testing for the virus and to create a set of metrics designed to trigger closing schools and returning remote learning if coronavirus infections continue to soar. The talks grew contentious at times as union leaders accused Mayor Lori Lightfoot of “bullying” teachers back to the classrooms and school district officials accused the union of staging an “illegal walkout.”

Both sides filed complaints to a state labor board.

“Some will ask who won and who lost,” Lightfoot said Monday night. “No one wins when our students are out of the place where they can learn the best and where they’re safest. After being out of school for four days in a row, I’m sure many students will be excited to get back in the classroom with their teachers and peers. And their parents and guardians can now breathe a much deserved sigh of relief.”

Pedro Martinez, CEO of Chicago Public Schools, said the district is committed to the safety of its students, teachers and staff, and said the negotiations forged “some really good things.”

CTU President Jesse Sharkey said Monday that the union fought to improve classroom safety for both students and teachers.

“I’m ultimately proud the Chicago Teachers Union took a stand,” Sharkey said at a news conference. “We’re going to keep doing what’s right as we navigate this. It’s not a perfect agreement but we’ll hold our heads up high, as it was hard to get.”

The agreement also includes new incentives to boost the number of substitute teachers in the district and establishes metrics that will prompt a return to remote learning, but for individual schools, not the districtwide protocols for which CTU had asked.

The district also offered to spend about $100 million to implement a safety plan that includes air purifiers for all classrooms. The district said it will provide KN95 masks for all teachers and students.

The union’s governing body, composed of 700 members, voted by nearly a 2-to-1 margin — 63% to 27% — to end remote teaching. Rank-and-file members have until later this week to vote on whether to ratify the agreement.

Like Chicago, school districts nationwide are reeling from a surge in COVID-19 cases sparked by the highly contagious omicron variant.

The Los Angeles Unified School District is planning to reopen schools for in-person learning on Tuesday, although some schools in the nation’s second-largest school district have opted to delay reopening due to an increase in reported COVID-19 cases.

LAUSD officials are requiring all students and staff to get tested for COVID-19 before the first day of classes. The district announced on Monday that at least 65,630 of those tests have come back positive.

The Philadelphia School District announced on Friday that 46 schools would switch to virtual learning as the omicron variant and a winter storm took a toll on staffing.

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