CPS classes canceled Wednesday after Chicago Teachers Union votes to refuse in-person schooling

Classes are canceled in Chicago Public Schools Wednesday after the teachers union voted to refuse to show up for in-person work.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot blasted the Chicago Teachers Union late Tuesday for the work action, which the union said was endorsed by 73% of its members who voted. CTU said it took the step out of concerns about inadequate COVID-19 protections and intends to continue to teach remotely, though it remains unclear if that will happen starting Thursday.


As they waited for the outcome of the union vote Tuesday, Lightfoot, CPS CEO Pedro Martinez and public health commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady held a news conference where they again insisted that, despite the current spike in cases, children need to be back in school and that it’s a relatively safety environment with proper mitigation.

Lightfoot also warned teachers who don’t show up Wednesday will be placed on no-pay status — a move that would likely escalate the dispute.


“I have to tell you, it feels like ‘Groundhog Day,’ that we are here again,” Lightfoot said in reference to past strife with the CTU, including the 2019 teachers strike and then several rounds of thwarted school reopening attempts last year. She also accused union leaders of “politicizing the pandemic.”

“There is no basis in the data, the science or common sense for us to shut an entire system down when we can surgically do this at a school level,” Lightfoot said.

But with the spike in city cases and growing concerns about adequate mitigation, CTU’s House of Delegates, its 600-member governing body, approved a resolution Tuesday for members to teach remotely from Wednesday until Jan. 18, unless an agreement with CPS is reached or the rate of Chicago COVID-19 cases falls below a certain threshold.

That outcome sent the measure to a vote by the union’s 25,000 rank-and-file members later Tuesday, with CPS parents having to wait until nearly 11 p.m. to learn if they could send their children to school Wednesday.

Earlier Tuesday, Martinez said he’d asked the union to delay its vote and had expressed optimism that CPS and CTU could reach an agreement.

He said CPS submitted a proposal to CTU that includes metrics that would spur an individual school to transition to remote learning and would allow principals to restore the daily health questionnaires and temperature checks in place the last school year — some measures CTU has demanded.

In a message to parents late Tuesday, CPS officials apologized for the possible inconvenience. They said that if CTU approved its work action, students should not report to buildings Wednesday, though Martinez later clarified that students will not be turned away and will be looked after if dropped off. Schools will also be open for regularly scheduled COVID-19 testing, but there would be no remote instruction Wednesday, and after-school activities, sports and other school events would be canceled.

Students leave Darwin Elementary in Logan Square on Monday, the first day back to school from winter break for Chicago Public Schools.
Students leave Darwin Elementary in Logan Square on Monday, the first day back to school from winter break for Chicago Public Schools. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)

Beyond Wednesday, Martinez said the district will “have a plan specifically for parents that will come out (Wednesday) in a very timely fashion about what the path forward is. I am still committed, though, to coming up with an agreement with the CTU.”

Lightfoot also expressed concern that the delayed reopening would stretch on past the Jan. 18 date planned by CTU leaders.

CTU and CPS have been negotiating for months for a safety agreement for this school year. In a proposal submitted last week, CTU called for students and staff members to provide a negative COVID-19 test result before entering buildings Monday after their two-week winter break. Short of that, the union asked the district to go virtual for two weeks so additional safety measures could be put in place.

The union said daily health questionnaires should be reinstated; KF94, KN95, or N95 masks should be distributed to all staff and students; and a school should shift to remote learning if 20% or more of staff is in isolation or quarantine or when a school safety committee says a transition is warranted because of infection rates or noncompliance with protocols, among other demands.

“What we have proposed is more than reasonable,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said in a Tuesday letter to state leaders. He pointed out that public schools in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles require negative test results to return to classrooms, and public schools in Atlanta, Cleveland, Milwaukee and elsewhere have chosen the short-term remote option.

At CPS, Martinez said 200,000 KN95 masks for teachers and staff are being distributed districtwide. Indoor mask-wearing has been required since the start of school, while in-school weekly testing has been mandatory for unvaccinated staff members and optional for students. The testing program has experienced capacity issues from the start, and a winter break testing initiative flopped.

The plan CPS has proposed to the teachers union battles the city’s coronavirus spike at a school level, Martinez said. The district said a school would move to virtual instruction if at least 40% of its classroom teachers are absent for two consecutive days because of infection and the school-wide teacher absence rate because of infection is 30% or higher with the use of substitutes or internal staff.

An elementary school would transition if half of its classrooms are missing at least half of their students because they are in quarantine or isolation. A high school would make the move if more than half of the student population has been instructed to stay home because of COVID-19.

Under the CPS proposal, schools would resume in-person instruction after five to 10 school days unless the Chicago Department of Public Health said otherwise. Staff members of a school that starts learning virtually would be required to work in person unless they are told to quarantine or isolate.

CPS said it is also offering financial incentives to substitute teachers and letting principals restore the health screeners and reinstitute the temperature checks to allow entry into buildings. The district ditched these policies when schools reopened for full-time, in-person learning in the fall.

“The CTU has asked for the daily health screeners to come back. We are reactivating those, and what I’ve said is that it’s up to schools, because in the past, when the health screener was in place, it created significant backlogs of children being able to get into the buildings,” Martinez said before noting it is winter.

“What I’ve shared with my principals, and they had meetings with all their staff yesterday, if you want to use it in your school, just talk to your staff because there’s logistical issues. Talk to the parents, make sure they know because there’s logistical issues. If you want to use it, please, if that reduces your anxiety, go ahead and use it.”


Martinez said there is no metric that would trigger the entire district to go virtual because COVID-19 is affecting areas of Chicago differently.


The city is reporting nearly 4,600 daily cases — a 7% increase from last week — with a thousand of these cases in children. There are about seven child hospitalizations per day, according to city data.

“One of the things I’m hearing the most misinformation about is that Chicago hospitals are filling up with children, that many Chicago children are dying of COVID, that it’s a really scary time to be a child right now with COVID in Chicago,” Arwady said at a Tuesday morning news conference.

“And I want you to understand that while, of course, we are concerned about the rise in hospitalizations, that is being driven by unvaccinated adults. Child COVID hospitalizations remain very rare. Across the whole city, approximately 550,000 children, we are averaging just seven COVID hospitalizations a day right now for children aged zero to 17.”

Arwady said Tuesday she feels “extremely comfortable” with children learning in person with the mitigations that are in place. Arwady, Martinez and Lightfoot have long emphasized that schools are where kids belong.

“If we pause, what do we say to those parents who can’t afford to hire somebody to come in and watch their kids, who can’t ship their kids off to some other place, what do we say to those students who are already struggling?” Lightfoot said Tuesday at unrelated news conference.

CPS doesn’t need a “one-size-fits-all” strategy, Lightfoot said.

“We need to lean in to the science and the data and not push that to the side and give in to fear-mongering and hysteria,” Lightfoot said.

Lightfoot also reiterated that remote learning led to learning loss among Black children, including increases in failure rates for elementary school children. CPS students spent most of the last school year learning at home before the union and the district reached agreement for kids to return to classrooms in waves.

“Why on earth, when we don’t need to pause, would we pause and risk falling back into the same old trap?” Lightfoot said. “Achievement gaps are real and they’re affecting kids of color at an exponential rate.”

About 5,700 CPS students and 1,900 adults started the new calendar year in quarantine or isolation because they tested positive for COVID-19 or came in close contact with someone who had. The district said around 82% of teachers reported to work Monday, the first day back from winter break. Student attendance numbers for this week were not immediately available.

Some 400 people tested positive Monday of 4,100 tests taken at CPS schools — a 10% positivity rate, which is higher than usual, according to CPS data on the district’s weekly testing program. CPS said 400 cases were reported Tuesday morning, with about 70% students and 30% staff.

CPS said it is holding 33 vaccination events this week. About 91% of its staff is fully vaccinated. Just over half of CPS students aged 12 and older are fully vaccinated, according to the district, with about a quarter of the students 5 to 11 years old having received at least one dose. More than 330,000 students are enrolled in CPS, the nation’s third-largest school district.

Illinois school districts may not temporarily transition to remote learning without consulting with their local health department. Remote learning days must be offered for the duration, per Illinois State Board of Education guidelines.

The state on Monday shattered a record set just a day earlier for the number of COVID-19 patients filling hospital beds statewide.

As of Monday night, hospitals were treating 6,600 patients with the coronavirus, up from 6,294 a day earlier. The previous one-day record for COVID-19 hospitalizations was 6,175 on Nov. 20, 2020.

State health officials on Tuesday reported 24,423 new confirmed and probable cases of COVID-19, pushing average number of new daily cases to 23,586. The seven-day average of new cases has set a record on 12 of the past 13 days.

The statewide case positivity rate — the percentage of new cases as a share of total tests — hit a seven-day average of 13.2% for the week ending Monday, near its highest level since testing became widely available. The positivity rate has more than doubled in the past two weeks.