Teachers union says Chicago mayor refuses to compromise on school COVID measures

By Diana Wallace and Tracy Swartz

CHICAGO — As Chicago Public Schools entered its fourth day of canceled classes, the head of the Chicago Teachers Union said the sides remain “apart on a number of key features” and accused Mayor Lori Lightfoot of bullying teachers.

Union leaders argued that teaching remotely — which a large majority of CTU members voted in favor of doing through Jan. 18 amid the current omicron-driven COVID-19 surge — is preferable to losing more instruction time altogether.

“What’s needed is the ability to work together (toward) an agreement to start instruction,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said during a Monday morning news conference, saying Lightfoot was being “relentlessly stupid” and “relentlessly stubborn.”

“The mayor needs to help actually compromise. … The mayor says she’s going to be relentless in prosecuting the case. But she is not a prosecutor and I am not a criminal,” he said, adding the union is “hitting a brick wall” in its request for a clear metric that would trigger a school to go remote.

Lightfoot, whose administration has repeatedly asserted that schools are safe for students despite record numbers of COVID-19 cases, said Sunday her administration “categorically” rejects a districtwide return to remote learning.

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

Asked about the Chicago schools stalemate at a briefing Monday, President Joe Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, said the White House is in regular touch with the mayor and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker over the situation.

“We have been very clear. … We want to see schools open,” Psaki said.

Late Saturday, Pritzker announced his office had secured 350,000 rapid antigen tests for CPS to purchase. That followed a report from political news site capitolfax.com, confirmed by Pritzker’s office Friday, that the state had earlier offered CPS vaccination clinics, masks and SHIELD tests to CPS, but the city didn’t take up the offer.

CTU issued a statement regarding Psaki’s comments Monday, saying: “We welcome the president reaching out to the mayor, and urging her to partner with our city’s educators to develop a plan that will keep our students and school communities as safe as possible — similar to the collaboration and partnership taking place in school districts in cities across the U.S., from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C.”

CPS said negotiations went until 9:30 p.m. Sunday and resumed at 10:30 a.m. Monday.

Hours earlier, outside Spry Elementary in Little Village — an area hit hard by the pandemic — staff members and parents spoke at a CTU news conference about students who’ve lost family members to COVID-19, about high rates of absenteeism in school already because of cases and quarantines, and about lingering doubts on whether now’s the time to send students back.

“We need our mayor to step up and be a leader,” Spry teacher Elizabeth Morales said.

CPS reported 10 new cases at Spry Elementary last week, with 37 people in quarantine as of Sunday. About 315 students are enrolled at Spry, according to the district.

Districtwide, about 7,700 students and nearly 2,300 adults are in isolation because they tested positive or in quarantine because they came in contact with an infected person. CPS reported 1,300 new adult and 1,200 student cases last week — a record for both groups.

CTU floated a new proposal Saturday under which remote instruction would begin Wednesday. Lightfoot’ quickly rejected that, though CPS reported some progress on issues.

“We understand the public wants this impasse to end,” Sharkey said Monday. “ ... The issue here is that of how we’re dealing with the pandemic. It’s not that teachers don’t want to work. We’ve been working.”

Repeating his plea for collaboration, Sharkey said: “We don’t like bullies. We don’t like tyrants. We’re not going to be bullied and pushed in a corner.”

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