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Chicago public school classes are canceled after teachers union backs remote learning

A sign on the door of Lowell Elementary School asks students, staff and visitors to wear a mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on Wednesday in Chicago. Classes at all of Chicago public schools have been canceled Wednesday by the school district after the teacher's union voted to return to virtual learning.
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A sign on the door of Lowell Elementary School asks students, staff and visitors to wear a mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on Wednesday in Chicago. Classes at all of Chicago public schools have been canceled Wednesday by the school district after the teacher's union voted to return to virtual learning.

Updated January 5, 2022 at 11:23 AM ET

More than 300,000 public school students in Chicago are off Wednesday after the district canceled classes due to a row with the city's teachers union over COVID-concerns.

Last night, 73% of the 25,000-plus members of the Chicago Teachers Union voted to refuse orders to work in-person, opting for remote work only. But the school district doesn't want to allow teachers to work remotely during the current COVID-19 surge so it canceled all classes in the district Wednesday in response.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot called the union action an "illegal work stoppage"; the union said the decision was made with a heavy heart. This sets two groups up for a standoff over when classes will resume — and how. This isn't the first time the Chicago Teachers Union and the school district have clashed over COVID-19 rules and how to instruct students safely.

"Educators of this city want to be in buildings with their students. We believe that classrooms are where our children should be," the union tweeted after the vote. "But as the results tonight show, Mayor Lightfoot and her CPS team have yet to provide safety for the overwhelming majority of schools."

The union plans to continue rejecting in-person work until cases substantially subside or school leaders sign an agreement with the union establishing conditions for return.

WBEZ's Sarah Karp reports that under the union's measure, remote-only teaching would extend until Jan. 18, or until Chicago no longer meets the metrics agreed upon last year for schools to move to remote learning, whichever comes first. Last year's agreement between the union and the school district included switching to remote learning if the city's positivity rate for coronavirus testing rose above 15%. Currently, the city's positivity rate is at 23%, up from 14% last week.

The union is pushing for more safety measures as the highly contagious omicron variant shoots case numbers up across the country, while the school district and mayor's office argue added health and safety protocols aren't necessary.

"Our schools are safe," Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez said during a press conference Tuesday after the results of the vote were announced. "There is no evidence that our schools have ever been unsafe this school year."

He added that Chicago schools rarely saw evidence of any major transmission.

School buildings remained open Wednesday for other services, including meals and vaccination clinics. The district says it will provide families with more information about what will be done for the rest of the week by Wednesday night.


A version of this story originally published in the Morning Edition live blog.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Nell Clark is an editor at Morning Edition and a writer for NPR's Live Blog. She pitches stories, edits interviews and reports breaking news. She started in radio at campus station WVFS at Florida State University, then covered climate change and the aftermath of Hurricane Michael for WFSU in Tallahassee, Fla. She joined NPR in 2019 as an intern at Weekend All Things Considered. She is proud to be a member of NPR's Peer-to-Peer Trauma Support Team, a network of staff trained to support colleagues dealing with trauma at work. Before NPR, she worked as a counselor at a sailing summer camp and as a researcher in a deep-sea genetics lab.