Leaders of the nation’s third-largest school district canceled classes for a third consecutive day as heated negotiations continued with the Chicago Teachers Union over remote learning and other COVID-19 safety measures.

The union, which voted this week to revert to online instruction, told teachers not to show up to schools starting Wednesday during the latest COVID-19 surge while both sides negotiate. The move just two days after students returned from winter break prompted district officials to cancel classes each day for students in the roughly 350,000-student district during negotiations, saying there’s no plan to return to districtwide remote instruction.

School districts nationwide have confronted the same pandemic issues, with most opting to stay open while ramping up virus testing, tweaking protocols and other adjustments in response to the shifting pandemic.
In a Thursday message to parents, Chicago leaders said classes would be canceled Friday but “in-person learning and activities may be available at a small number of schools” based on how many employees report to work. A small percentage of teachers, along with substitutes, have continued to come to schools during what the district has labeled an “illegal work stoppage.”

Some schools preemptively alerted parents earlier Thursday that they didn’t have enough staff and wouldn’t accept students aside from offering meal pickup in the largely low-income and Black and Latino district. The district said roughly 10% of about 21,620 teachers came to work Wednesday and by Thursday it was nearly 13%.

“Our schools are the best, safest place for students to be during this pandemic, and we are working tirelessly to get everyone back in class every day,” Schools CEO Pedro Martinez said in a statement Thursday evening. “We will continue working with CTU to resolve this situation and will provide you with ongoing updates as the week continues.”

Chicago’s school leaders have rejected a return to remote learning, saying it worsens racial inequities and is detrimental to academic performance, mental health and attendance. District officials have spent about $100 million on a safety plan, including air purifiers in classrooms.

There was little sign Thursday that either side was softening — the district and union both filed labor complaints with the state this week as negotiations continued. Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who has said the city is considering legal options to get teachers back in classrooms, issued a statement late Thursday saying negotiations went on most of the day and were “productive from our perspective.” The city has said that teachers who don’t come to schools won’t get paid. Issues on the table include more testing and metrics to trigger school closures.

The union has blasted the district for not doing enough, like botching a testing program and maintaining unreliable data on infections in schools. They’ve sought demands similar to a safety agreement put in place last year after a fierce debate. However, the district says the pandemic is different now than a year ago and requires a different response, particularly since 91% of school staff is vaccinated.

Lightfoot accused the union of politicizing a pandemic, while the union’s president, Jesse Sharkey, dubbed her “Lockout Lori,” because teachers haven’t been able to log into remote-learning systems since early Wednesday.

“Enough is enough,” Lightfoot said Thursday morning on MSNBC. “I’m tired of the Groundhog Day appearance of everything that goes on with the Chicago Teachers Union leadership. We need partnership, we don’t need conflict. “

Sharkey said Lightfoot is wrong to blame teachers.

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