Chicago's mayor blasts teachers union for ‘abandoning’ families

By Gregory Pratt

CHICAGO — Mayor Lori Lightfoot accused the Chicago Teachers Union of abandoning “kids and their families” but said she remains “hopeful” an agreement can be reached to reopen schools Monday.

Lightfoot made the comments during a national interview Sunday on “Meet the Press,” in which she vacillated between criticizing the union and saying she hopes to soon reach an agreement with union brass. Asked if schools could reopen Monday, Lightfoot said: “We’re working like the dickens to make sure we get a deal done today so I’m hopeful.”

At another point, she said she’s doing everything she can to make sure schools reopen this week.

“To be clear, what the Chicago Teachers Union did was an illegal walkout,” Lightfoot said. “They abandoned their posts and they abandoned kids and their families.”

The biggest point of contention between Chicago Public Schools and the union is over remote learning, which Lightfoot said her administration “categorically” rejects.

The union’s most recent proposal, announced Saturday, calls for districtwide remote learning beginning Wednesday if school officials agree to a set of additional COVID-19 safety protocols.

But even before the union’s announcement was complete, Lightfoot shot down the idea, accusing the union of “not listening.”

Under Saturday’s offer, CTU members would return to classrooms starting Monday — not for formal classes but to distribute laptops and help students sign up for a weekly, school-based COVID-19 testing program. Remote learning would begin Wednesday with in-person classes slated to resume Jan. 18, assuming case numbers hold tight.

Scores of Chicago Public Schools staff and students already are absent from in-person classes because they have COVID-19 or are quarantining because of possible exposure. But Lightfoot, CPS and public health officials have repeatedly opposed a wholesale return to remote learning during the standoff that so far has resulted in three days of canceled classes.

As of Thursday, the union had demanded a negative PCR test for students to return to class, but the new proposal would scrap that requirement for a plan in which 10% of a school’s population would be tested at random each week, on top of those who already have signed up for a voluntary weekly testing program.

If 20% or more of a school’s CTU staff is isolating or quarantining because of COVID-19, the school would switch to remote learning, according to the proposal. The threshold would jump to 25% if there are fewer than 100 employees at the school.

In-person learning also would be suspended at elementary schools if more than 30% of students are isolating in more than 30% of homerooms. For high school and middle school programs, the threshold to suspend in-person classes is if more than 25% of the student body is isolating.

Another new proposal is an increase to the monthly substitute teacher stipend, from $420 to $1,000.

The union also continues to call for regular mask distribution and for reinstating the health screener at schools where administrators request that option.

During her Sunday appearance on "Meet the Press," Lightfoot said she’s opposed to districtwide remote learning and defended her administration’s handling of COVID-19 cases. She also said there are only 53 outbreaks tied to schools.

“We haven’t sat idly by and let COVID rage through our schools,” Lightfoot said. “When there’s been a necessity to shut down a classroom or shut down a school, to go to remote learning, we’ve done that.”

She added: “We’re following the science. And what I won’t do is allow the teachers union to politicize this surge or the pandemic in general. People are nervous. They are scared. We get that, but the thing to do is to lean into the facts and the science and not abandon them in a panic.”

In negotiating with CTU, Lightfoot faces several challenges and has relatively little leverage. She has filed an unfair labor practices complaint against the district, though that could take significant time to resolve. She also has called on teachers to return to their classrooms, despite the union’s vote, which is unlikely to sway the opinion of a significant number of educators.

Asked what leverage she has over the union, Lightfoot said, “The leverage I think we have is we’ve got the will of the people. Parents are outraged and they’re making their outrage known to the teachers union.”

While Lightfoot’s dispute with the union over remote learning remains ongoing, her office quietly extended permission for its employees to continue temporarily working from home.

Late last month Lightfoot authorized staff to work remotely through Jan. 7, but her chief of staff told workers last week that they can work from home for at least another week. Lightfoot press secretary Cesar Rodriguez said the mayor’s office had no comment on the directive.

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