Lori Lightfoot’s Feud With Chicago Teachers Is Leaving Thousands of Students in Limbo

Public school students in Chicago remained out of the classroom on Friday as the bitter standoff between the city’s teachers union and Mayor Lori Lightfoot dragged into a third day. The situation has already been rife with acrimony and uncertainty, with kids and families caught in the middle of another feud between the Lightfoot administration and the CTU. But adding to the frustration is the fact that there was no resolution in sight as of Friday, leaving the third-largest school district in the country in the lurch ahead of the next school week. “I feel abandoned,” a parent in the city’s southwest side Pilsen neighborhood told Chalkbeat Chicago earlier this week.

The latest clash between Lightfoot and the CTU comes as COVID cases in Chicago and across the country are surging due to the more transmissible, though apparently milder, Omicron variant. CTU says current pandemic conditions have made in-person learning unsafe, and nearly three-quarters of its membership late Tuesday voted to stay out of the classroom until January 18 or until the city’s test positivity rate drops below 10 percent. (As of Friday, Chicago’s positivity rate was 22.7 percent.) The union has suggested returning to remote learning until then, but Chicago Public Schools abruptly canceled classes Wednesday, just days after students returned from winter break, with Lightfoot calling the CTU action as an “unlawful, unilateral strike” and city officials—including public health commissioner Allison Arwady—saying schools remain safe despite the high community COVID spread, describing the current threat to kids and staff as similar to past flu seasons.

“We don’t upend school, we don’t stop for influenza,” Arwady said this week. “It really is concerning to me that we’re pretending like it’s February 2020, at the beginning of all this.”

In some respects, the rift is part of a long-running feud between Lightfoot and the union, who warred less than six months into her mayorship in 2019 over compensation, class sizes, and other issues during a two-week teacher strike. In fiery comments to WBEZ on Wednesday, Lightfoot accused CTU of operating in bad faith and “moving the goalposts,” expressing concern that the union could continue the work stoppage beyond January 18. “What they believe in is exercising raw political power,” she said. CTU President Jesse Sharkey, meanwhile, maintains that “going into schools puts us at risk, puts our students and family at risk of contracting the coronavirus,” and is calling for CPS to implement more safety measures. CTU has dubbed the impasse the “#LoriLockout.”

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The particular dynamics of Chicago politics aside, though, the standoff looks like a lot of debates that are playing out across the United States as the country enters its third year of the pandemic. COVID has already put an enormous strain on students, parents, and educators. But the current phase of the pandemic has added new confusion to the mix: Omicron has driven a surge in cases and hospitalizations, including among kids. But data suggests the variant tends to cause milder illness than previous iterations of the coronavirus in adults and children alike, and vaccination has dramatically lowered the risk of severe COVID for most individuals who have received their shots and boosters. The Chicago Tribune, citing district statistics from CPS, where about 330,000 students are enrolled, noted that “more than half of district students 12 to 17 years old and nearly 12% of students 5 to 11 are fully vaccinated,” along with 91% of school staff. 

 As Arwady suggested, we are not living in the early days of the pandemic, despite varying levels of risk—and risk tolerance—among individuals. Moreover, the toll of remote learning on kids’ education and mental health has been coming into focus, and federal leaders have made a priority of keeping in-person learning. “The president has been very clear he wants these schools to be open,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Thursday, “including in Chicago.” But there have been concerns—not only among educators, but parents and students, as well—that schools don’t have the resources to safely do so.

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