As Chicago Union prepares to vote on remote teaching, district says schools are safe

Students at the Roberto Clemente Community Academy in Chicago Monday.

(CNN)As the Chicago Teachers Union prepares to vote late Tuesday on whether to return to virtual teaching as Covid-19 cases surge, a move that potentially could trigger an "electronic lockout" by the school district, the district's CEO pleaded with the union to keep schools open.

"There is no evidence that our schools are unsafe," Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez said at a news conference Tuesday.
But the union's vice president, Stacy Davis Gates, said teachers are dealing with "severe staffing shortages" and a lack of mitigation measures against Covid-19.
      "The layers of mitigation that we need to keep our schools open and keep our students inside of the school buildings have not happened here in Chicago," Davis Gates said on CNN's "New Day" Tuesday.
        The union is planning to convene an emergency meeting to vote on virtual teaching after Chicago Public Schools, the third-largest school district in the country, resumed in-person learning Monday.
          As their vote was underway, Chicago officials held a second news conference.
          Martinez said if teachers don't show up to work they won't be paid.
          He also said that even if there are no classes, the buildings will be open so children can come.
          Mayor Lori Lightfoot said there is no disputing that when the district went fully remote last year "our children suffered."
          She advocated leaving it up to individual school administrators as to when to move to online learning.
          "What I know from talking to the public health experts, what I know in talking to our CEO is there is no basis in the data, the science, or common sense for us to shut an entire system down when we can surgically do this at a school level where needed," she said.
          She added that the city has spent more than $100 million on mitigation like improvements to ventilation systems in schools and HEPA filters.
          The union vote comes as pediatric Covid-19 cases nationwide have reached record levels, according to data released Monday by the American Academy of Pediatrics, with cases increasing almost 64% in the week ending December 30 from the prior week.
          Chicago Health Department Commissioner Allison Arwady, though, argued earlier that Covid-19 is not affecting children nearly as severely as adults.
          "I understand that people are scared," Arwady said. "I understand that you're looking at those numbers and seeing that they're high, but I want to just reassure you that, especially if you're vaccinated, your child is vaccinated, this is behaving really like the flu and we don't close school districts, especially for extended periods of time, for the flu."
          "I remain extremely comfortable with children continuing in-person education," Arwady said at the first news conference.
          She said at the second media event that there are 550,000 children in the city and on average about seven are hospitalized each day -- almost all of those are unvaccinated kids between 12 and 17.
          Martinez said keeping students in schools gives the district better access to families to get them tested and vaccinated.
          "One of the reasons why I continue to plead, including with CTU leadership, to keep the schools open and to keep classes going, because that's our best chance to reach families," Martinez said.
          The union meeting will include a poll of the group's delegates (elected union leaders for individual schools) on whether they support remote learning until the current Covid-19 surge subsides.
          The union will also be sending the same question electronically to its roughly 25,000 rank-and-file members Tuesday, according to a union official.
          At a union virtual town hall meeting Sunday, about 80% of the 8,000 members who attended indicated they did not want to return to work in-person under the current conditions, the official said.
          If rank-and-file members vote to return to remote learning, those teachers would notify their respective principals either Tuesday evening or Wednesday morning they would be ready to teach, but only remotely -- effectively walking out of their physical classrooms.
          In similar circumstances in the past, the district has threatened to lock teachers out of their remote classrooms, the official added.
          If the union votes in favor of going remote, classes will be canceled for Wednesday, Martinez said.
          "We are still committed to trying to get an agreement," Martinez said, but "If none of that works... I will have to cancel classes tomorrow."
          "I have to be responsible, not knowing who is going to be showing up to the buildings," Martinez said.

          Parents express frustrations

          Darian Martyniuk, father to a 7th grade boy at Lane Tech Academic Center and a daughter at Von Steuben High School, said "I'm glad the kids are back, I'm glad they're trying to make it work but I think the whole situation has been a failure of leadership on both sides of the issue. I think the impression is the union is just, sour grapes or they're just using this as a negotiating tactic to get what they want but I think they have legitimate concerns.
          "It's all masks," he added. "Forget about distancing... It's masks. If everybody is wearing masks, transmission goes down dramatically. That's really what it boils down to. And if you're vaccinated which most CPS teachers are I'm pretty sure."
            Parent Maureen Kelleher pulled her 7th-grade daughter out of Chicago Public Schools last year over its handling of the pandemic.
            "Fundamentally, the basic problems are on the shoulders of CPS leadership and City Hall," Kelleher said. "The union has a role in this but it's the district's job to figure out how to educate kids come what may. So the things that they have not figured out what to do are to look at the situation through the eyes of the people who are in the crosshairs of two things."