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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Chicago schools will reopen as teachers and the city reach a deal over virus safeguards

Students at Mt. Greenwood Elementary School in Chicago returned on Monday, when the school had enough staff to defy the union’s directive to teachers to stay home amid negotiations over safety protocols.

By Mitch Smith

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration on Monday announced a deal with the Chicago Teachers Union that would return students to classrooms today after a dispute over coronavirus safeguards canceled a week of classes in the country’s third-largest school district.

“No one is more frustrated than I am,” Lightfoot said after the deal was reached. She added: “I’m glad that we’re hopefully putting this behind us and looking forward. But there does come a point when enough is enough.”

The deal, which city officials said included provisions for additional testing and metrics that would close schools with major virus outbreaks, was approved by the union’s House of Delegates on Monday night and was expected to be voted on later in the week by rank-and-file teachers.

Teachers were expected to return to school buildings Tuesday, with students joining them the next day. Leaders of the union described the agreement as imperfect and were highly critical of Lightfoot, but they said the deal was needed given the conditions teachers are facing in the pandemic.

“This agreement is the only modicum of safety that is available for anyone that steps foot in the Chicago Public Schools, especially in the places in the city where testing is low and where vaccination rates are low,” said Stacy Davis Gates, union vice president.

School leaders across the country have scrambled to adjust to the highly infectious omicron variant, which has pushed the country’s daily case totals to record levels and led to record hospitalizations. Most school districts have forged ahead with in-person instruction, as the Biden administration has urged, sometimes quarantining individual students or classrooms as outbreaks emerge. Some large districts, including in Milwaukee and Cleveland, have moved class online.

But the debate in Chicago proved uniquely bitter and unpredictable, with hundreds of thousands of children pulled out of class two days after winter break when teachers voted to stop reporting to their classrooms. Rather than teach online, as the union proposed, the school district canceled classes altogether.

Chicago Public Schools leaders have insisted that virus precautions were in place and that pausing in-person instruction would unfairly burden parents and harm students’ academic and social progress. Union members said that the schools were not safe, that more testing was needed and that classes should be temporarily moved online.

The Chicago area, like much of the country, is averaging far more new cases each day than at any previous point in the pandemic. The omicron variant is believed to cause less-severe illness than prior forms of the virus, with vaccinated people unlikely to face severe outcomes. Still, coronavirus hospitalizations in Illinois have exceeded their peak levels from last winter and continue to rise sharply.

Relations between the Chicago Teachers Union and City Hall have been extraordinarily tense for a decade, stretching across the tenures of Lightfoot and her predecessor, Rahm Emanuel. In 2019, months before the pandemic, teachers went on strike for 11 days and extracted concessions from Lightfoot on pay, class sizes and support staff. A year ago, when schools first returned to in-person instruction, the city and union engaged in weeks of tense negotiations.

Members of Lightfoot’s administration have defended the school system’s efforts to make classrooms safe and have emphasized that children rarely face severe outcomes from COVID-19. But their efforts to reassure parents and teachers have sometimes faltered. The district instituted an optional testing plan over winter break, but most of the 150,000 or so mail-in PCR tests given to students were never returned; of the ones that were, a majority produced invalid results.

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