Chicago schools lock out teachers after union votes for distance learning
Chicago teachers voted in favor of distance learning to combat the virus, but Chicago Public Schools administrators and the mayor responded with a lockout. Meanwhile, COVID case counts soar in Chicago and testing shows a high positivity rate among students and staff. | AP photos

CHICAGO—The Chicago Public Schools, the third-largest system in the continental U.S., canceled classes on Jan. 5 after an overwhelming majority of its 28,000 teachers and staff voted for distance learning, not in-person classes, in the latest effort to beat the coronavirus pandemic.

The workers, Chicago Teachers Union/AFT Local 1 members, voted 73%-27% in a four-hour electronic vote on the evening of Jan. 4 for distance learning. CPS CEO Pedro Martinez then carried out his threat to close the schools, virtually locking the workers out, even barring teaching by Zoom.

Before the members’ vote, the union’s House of Delegates voted 88%-12% “to support a resolution to return to remote education during this deadly surge in the absence of safety guarantees from the Mayor’s CPS team,” Local 1 said. The confrontation could run through Jan. 18, the union previously said.

It was “a rapidly convened vote to address a groundswell of safety concerns raised by members in recent weeks. Delegates had set a threshold of two-thirds for the resolution to be considered approved, unlike a strike vote, which requires 75%.

“Let us be clear. The educators of this city want to be in their classrooms with their students. We believe that our city’s classrooms are where our students should be. Regrettably, the Mayor and her CPS leadership have put the safety and vibrancy of our students and their educators in jeopardy,” the union said.

“We want you to know that when you put your children in our care we put their well-being and safety first. We fight for your children like they are our own because they are. As this pandemic continues, we will do everything in our power to ensure our classrooms are the safest and healthiest places for your children to learn, thrive, and grow.”

Like parents in the Windy City, CTU described itself as frustrated by Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D), who controls the school board and the CEO, to refuse “to at last commit to enforceable safety protections centered on the well-being of our students, their families, and our school communities.

“We want to be in our buildings educating our students—but we have a right to rigorous layered mitigation that ensures that we’re also not sacrificing our lives for our livelihoods,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey just days before the deadline.

The union wants all students and staff to present proof of negative coronavirus test results before in-person learning resumes. It also seeks high-quality masks for all students and staff to reinstate the standards the two sides agreed upon to reopen the schools for the last section of the 2020-21 school year.

“If mitigations are not in place, the CTU’s proposal would pause in-person learning to give the district time to ensure that all mitigations are in place,” the union said in a prior statement. Besides negative test results, other measures included better masking and ventilation repairs to ensure fresh air circulates in all city schools.

“The number of fully vaxed school educators being sickened by COVID continues to increase rapidly, and the union has also flagged concerns about safely staffing schools as educators are felled by illness in growing numbers, as is being seen in the retail and airline industries,” it continued.

“The proposal is designed to address the impact of the worst COVID outbreak in the history of the pandemic, with the Illinois Secretary of State and ILGA (state legislative) offices among those moving to pause in-person work while the surge spikes.”

Lightfoot keeps changing positions, the union previously tweeted. CTU and Lightfoot have been at odds on a wide range of issues, including responses to the coronavirus, for virtually all of Lightfoot’s tenure.

“Interesting to hear Mayor Lightfoot’s top doctor open today’s press conference” on Jan. 4 “saying the news in Chicago is not good, then close it by relaying her conversations with anti-maskers and reducing the newest strain of COVID-19 to the flu,” its tweet said.

“This is not a binary debate about opening or closing schools,” CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said then. “We know mitigations in far too many of our schools are inadequate, and we’ve been asking the mayor’s CPS team for almost two years to partner with us to make sure we’re maximizing protections in our schools.

“We need the mayor and her team to draft a plan to keep schools staffed and people safe. Instead, the mayor has abrogated her responsibility to make decisions as the head of the school district that truly maximizes safety, and forced educators and families to shoulder those safety burdens alone.”

CPS also withheld needed information from the union. Since health care is a mandatory subject of bargaining, CTU was preparing to file an unfair labor practices complaint with the National Labor Relations Board over that stonewalling.

“CPS has the funds—over $2 billion by their own count—to be able to do what’s necessary,” Sharkey added. If the needed steps “aren’t in place” by the original deadline of Jan. 3, “we predict chaos,” the union said the next day. The steps weren’t in place, and 18% of the teachers and staff had tested positive.

CPS sent 150,000 take-home COVID-19 test kits to students at more than 300 schools in communities hit hardest by the pandemic. CTU applauded the CPS plan, but its execution was a fiasco.

Chicago Teachers Union members gather outside Benito Juarez Community Academy to discuss safety for students and staff in Chicago, Aug. 18, 2021. The Chicago Teachers Union voted for distance learning Tuesday and CPS responded by canceling all classes.| Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune via AP

Test packages spilled onto the ground near drop boxes, social media photos showed. And while the tests were supposed to come back New Year’s Day weekend, only 35,800 tests were completed, and about 25,000 of them were ruined. Eighteen percent of the remaining 10,800 came back positive.

“We have already dealt with inadequate staffing since the beginning of the school year, including a desperate lack of substitute teachers. This failure to plan and adequately protect our school communities will only make this situation worse,” Sharkey added.

That situation—the continuing pandemic—produced 22,299 positive cases of COVID-19 on Jan. 3, an all-time high for Cook County, which includes Chicago. Its daily case rate over the week ending that day was 201.8 positive cases per 100,000 people, the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Tracking Dashboard reported, and Cook had one-quarter of statewide cases.

In Illinois, Cook trailed suburban Kendall County (229 cases per 100,000 people) and several downstate counties, led by Champaign County, home of the University of Illinois (307 cases per 100,000).

A spot check of other school districts nationally showed a variety of responses to the continuing pandemic, and especially to the recent hike spike in cases due to the quick spread of its Omricon variant.

New York City and the United Federation of Teachers, AFT’s largest local in the nation’s largest school district, reached a comprehensive agreement on what to do just before schools reopened Jan. 3. In Washington, D.C., where Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) also controls the board, opening was delayed after a record spike in cases. Cleveland’s schools were delayed, too.

But the Texas Federation of Teachers and especially its Houston affiliate, are battling the state in court over right-wing Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order to reopen the schools without masks. The state won the latest round in a federal courtroom there.

And when right-wing GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida announced that state’s latest reopening order, again with bans on masks and mitigation, an unidentified speaker, not a teacher, stood up at his Jan. 3 press conference and declared DeSantis was endangering his kids. Troopers escorted the man out.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.