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Chicago teachers demand return to remote learning

By staff

Mayor Lori Lightfoot locks teachers and students out of virtual classrooms

Chicago, IL – On Tuesday, January 4, more than 73% of teachers in Chicago who are represented by Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) voted to not return to classrooms on Wednesday, and instead taught their classes remotely to keep the teachers, staff and students safe as the pandemic surges. As the Omicron variant intensifies, the current positivity rate for COVID-19 in Chicago is at 23% and climbing.

Article 14-1 of the teachers’ union contract allows for the union members to assert their right to “safe and healthful conditions” at work which the union says it is doing. However, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot promptly responded by locking over 300,000 students and more than 25,000 teachers out of all virtual classrooms on Wednesday. In fact Lightfoot’s lockout even includes stopping remote learning at the Virtual Academy, which was already Chicago Public Schools (CPS) remote-only school. The lockout which began January 5 has now continued into a second day.

As has been a pattern in recent negotiations with Lightfoot’s CPS, the mayor attempts to shame teachers who are fighting to keep the students safe. However, at the bargaining table the union says it has seen more movement than they had seen in the last few months, as a result of the actions the teachers are taking.

On January 5 the teachers held a press conference at Union Park followed by a car caravan to City Hall. Hundreds of cars filled with teachers, staff, parents and students joined the caravan in support of the teachers fight for student and staff safety.

The vast majority of students in the CPS system are Black, Latino and from low-income communities where vaccination rates are low. While the teachers themselves are vaccinated to a high degree, the student body is much less so, with vaccination rates in many cases well below 50%.

The teachers want to work and teach and are willing to do so remotely to keep everyone safe. While teacher safety is a real concern, the larger concern for the teachers is keeping their students safe from the highly contagious variant ravaging the Chicago area at an alarming rate right now.

While much focus has been on the Chicago Public Schools, similar conditions and fights for safety are happening at area charter schools operated by 13 charter school companies. Chicago Teachers Union also represents teachers at the charter schools. These fights included sickouts by teachers and demands for remote learning and resulted in lockouts like the one ordered in CPS by Mayor Lightfoot. However, as the teachers held fast to their demands, the lockouts at the charter schools were lifted.

Math teacher and CTU member Valeria Vargas at the charter school Instituto Justice and Leadership Academy said, “Omicron has changed the game. Before this variant we were confidently operating with weekly testing and knowing that 100% of the staff were vaccinated. But now vaccinated people are getting sick and Omicron spreads much faster. Our school is in a predominantly Black and Latino neighborhood where fearmongering around the vaccines has meant that vaccination rates are much lower. We don’t blame the unvaccinated students at all, but we need to keep all of our students safe.”

Vargas continued, “ Our principal has stated that Omicron is mild so it’s ok, but that belief is rooted in ableism and eugenics. Everyone’s health is different. You don’t know someone else’s underlying conditions or health status. We know that in-person learning is best, and we want to teach that way, but right now we need to keep doing remote learning so that we can keep everyone safe. Our survival instinct is being weaponized against us, but the truth is that we know remote learning now is how we can all get back safely to in person learning in the future.”

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