CHICAGO — New year, same pandemic safety battles.
Students in the nation’s third-largest school system are out of school for a fourth straight day Monday as Chicago’s leaders spar with the teachers union over a question that has plagued communities since early 2020: Are schools safe to operate in person?
The union says no; city and district leaders say yes. Kids and families have been stuck in the middle since Wednesday, when teachers voted to go remote after two days of in-person instruction. Then the city said that wasn’t an option, and cut off remote schooling altogether.
Negotiations continued over the weekend, but the two sides failed to reach an agreement.
“There has not been sufficient progress for us to predict a return to class tomorrow,” Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot tweeted Sunday night.
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With COVID-19 infections fueled by the omicron variant surging after holiday breaks, about 5,400 public schools nationwide closed or shifted to remote instruction last week, according to Burbio, a site that tracks districts’ responses to the pandemic.
Education experts have increasingly cautioned the time for districtwide shutdowns has passed and that kids need to be in school. But large systems in Newark, Milwaukee and Detroit nonetheless shifted to remote-only instruction through this week as COVID-19 infections rose and staff shortages mounted.
Because in-person schooling is so critical, experts say, shutdowns for COVID-19 cases or exposures should be more carefully targeted by class or by school, with vaccination rates taken into consideration.
“Every time we’re shutting down, we’re creating more isolation and more time away from teachers in classrooms, who are so critical for students,” said Julia Rafal-Baer, managing partner of ILO Group, an education consulting company. Rafal-Baer also sits on the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for the government’s academic testing regime.
The consequences of widespread shutdowns are going to “reverberate for generations,” she added.
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Schools aren’t safe enough, some unions say
But teachers unions for some large districts say in-person instruction during the latest surge is dangerous because their districts aren’t supplying the necessary resources, such as ample COVID-19 tests and higher-quality face masks.
Districts nationwide are struggling to secure enough rapid tests, said Mike Magee, CEO of Chiefs for Change, a nonprofit that supports school superintendents. But, he added, many schools still have the tools to stay open.
“It can feel as dangerous in January 2022 as it did in January 2021, but it is not as dangerous in the vast majority of districts in the U.S., particularly in communities with high vaccination rates,” Magee said.
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Teachers don’t always agree.
In San Francisco, where school resumed Jan. 3, teachers are pushing the district for upgraded N95 or KN95 masks, weekly COVID-19 testing for staff and students and an extension of additional sick leave started during the pandemic. The union and district could not agree last week on new health and safety measures and are scheduled to meet again this week. Walkouts could be possible if safe working conditions aren’t secured, the union’s president said.
Los Angeles plans to reopen Jan. 10 for teachers and Jan. 11 for students — with a new requirement for everyone to produce a negative COVID-19 test, regardless of vaccination status. The teachers union had pushed for that measure. Employees must also wear high-quality face coverings, such as surgical masks.
In New York City, the union negotiated ramping up COVID-19 testing before reopening Jan. 3. So far, schools have largely stayed open, but student and staff absences have been high in some schools.
As of Friday, New York City’s schools reported about 9,500 infections — around 8,000 in students and 1,500 in staff. Six classrooms were closed, but all schools were open, the data showed.
New York City students suffered in the past year and a half when schools were closed, Chancellor David Banks said at a news conference last week with Mayor Eric Adams.
Even if attendance in schools is at 50%, Adams added, the students who show up are likely the ones who most need their building open.
“Their mom or dad had to go to work,” Adams continued. “They didn’t have a meal at home. They’re in a place that was unsafe. That’s the population we often ignore when we take a comfortable outlook.”
Enough tests to hold school?
In Chicago, teachers say the district has not secured enough tests to carry out a COVID-19 testing regime. Almost 3 in 4 union members voted last week to teach remotely until Jan. 18 or until cases fall below a particular threshold, and the union wants negative tests from students and staff before reopening.
The union also wants the district to ramp up a COVID-19 student vaccination program. Only about 35% of Chicago youth ages 5 to 11 have received at least one dose; about 25% are fully vaccinated, according to city data.
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Chicago Public Schools did not sign up for the state’s COVID-19 testing program for students, known as SHIELD, which offered schools rapid antigen testing along with weekly saliva testing. Chicago Public Schools selected a different vendor for COVID-19 testing.
Hundreds of other schools in Illinois successfully enrolled in the state’s program, Melaney Arnold, spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Public Health, told USA TODAY.
On Sunday, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot blamed the union for the lost days of instruction. Teachers union members “abandoned their post” and “abandoned kids and their families,” she said on NBC’s Meet the Press.
“We know that the safest place for kids to be is in-person learning in schools, and we’ve spent hundreds of millions of dollars to make our schools safe,” Lightfoot added.
Chicago educators continue to assert conditions on the ground are different.
Linda Giles, a CPS nurse at Jensen Elementary Scholastic Academy on the city’s West Side, said vaccination rates are low in her school community. Two mothers of children at the school died from COVID-19 complications this fall.
“We had really difficult working conditions in that school,” Giles said. “What we really need are mandates and metrics to help keep every school safe at CPS,” Giles said.
Dennis Kosuth, a Chicago Public Schools nurse and parent to an eighth grade student, said the district should include all children in COVID-19 testing and require disapproving parents to opt their child out. The district currently only tests children whose parents opt them in.
“If you put a bunch of students into rooms where they’re eating lunch without masks, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist – it doesn’t even take a registered nurse to tell you this is a situation which could be a disaster,” Kosuth said.