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How Chicago schools became an outlier in the latest COVID disruption

A student, wearing a knit cap and carrying a backpack, walks to a brick school building with an adult.
Students arrive for classes at A. N. Pritzker elementary school on January 12, 2022 in Chicago after five days of canceled classes amid a standoff over COVID safety protocols.
Scott Olson / Getty Images

In the span of a few days, Chicago canceled classes just before midnight on a Tuesday evening, the teachers union chief called the mayor “relentlessly stupid,” and the mayor on national television bashed the union for “abandoning” students. Working parents scrambled for babysitters and dropped off children at “safe haven” sites for emergency child care.

The return from winter break amid the omicron surge has severely tested school districts across the country, forcing them to grapple like never before with staffing shortages, glitchy testing programs, and spiking COVID case counts. In some cities — such as Oakland, where a teacher sickout closed some schools — the crisis is ratcheting up labor tensions.

Still, Chicago was an outlier. Nowhere has discord over COVID protocols escalated so quickly and shut down learning entirely as it did in the country’s third-largest district.

At a moment of heightened stress for educators, Chicago’s COVID protocols after winter break were less strict than those at some other large urban districts. But the situation ignited because a longstanding power struggle and deep mistrust between the powerful teachers union and the mayor left leaders primed for conflict — turning Chicago into a national example of dysfunctional education governance.

Meanwhile, stark disparities in vaccination rates and COVID testing participation across this deeply segregated city helped stoke anxiety among teachers, who argued Chicago wasn’t doing enough to bolster protections at schools on the South and West sides.

Then, just as the public was growing increasingly impatient and the rhetoric became even more heated, the two sides reached a deal to reopen Chicago classrooms earlier this week. Some teachers and parents have argued the deal does not go far enough in pushing the district to step up its COVID safety game; an unusually narrow majority of rank-and-file educators backed it.

Still, labor experts say the agreement is detailed and forward-thinking in some ways, and might inspire other districts to craft their own blueprints for navigating the seemingly unyielding vicissitudes of the virus.

“The district is better off with this agreement,” said Robert Bruno, an expert in labor relations at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Chicago will be seen as a template — and a warning.”

‘This is not Chicago’

In Chicago, the teachers union trained a spotlight on missteps by the district in the build-up to the latest standoff.

A voluntary student testing program, originally promised for the first day of school, took months to roll out and has been plagued by low participation. Despite district outreach to parents and a string of school-based vaccination events, the student COVID inoculation rates here — just more than 50% for those 12 and older, and a quarter of 5- to 11-year-olds — remain below those in some other large urban districts.

And the union has recently pointed to districts such as Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., which took a more aggressive approach on testing and vaccinations.

Although the United Teachers of Los Angeles shares a philosophical bent with the CTU and also went on strike in 2019, teachers in that city returned to school Tuesday without labor strife. The district required all students and staff to have a negative COVID test. Los Angeles will also continue a massive and expensive mandatory weekly testing program of all students and staff through at least January — part of a written agreement the district and union have touted as setting shared expectations for navigating the pandemic.

The district — one of the slowest large districts to return to in-person learning last spring — also reports a 90% vaccination rate among students following a student vaccine mandate the district recently delayed.

“If you look at a place like Chicago, they’re really fighting for some of the same safety protocols that we already have here in Los Angeles Unified,” Kelly Gonez, the school board president, told Chalkbeat.

However, technical issues with the rollout of the test-to-return program snarled the resumption of classes at some Los Angeles campuses this week, demonstrating the kinds of logistical challenges that ultimately led the CTU to back off its demand for a similar program in Chicago.

And Los Angeles’ massive testing operation remains relatively rare. A December survey found that just four of 100 large districts required testing of all students and staff. The far more common approach has been to simply make tests available.

Washington, D.C., where the district and union had clashed over reopening campuses last school year, also required students and staff to present negative COVID tests after the break. It canceled classes for two days to give families time to pick up free rapid tests at their schools. That district dealt with technical glitches as well and saw a relatively low positivity rate on the rapid tests, but eventually buildings reopened and learning went on.

Washington requires families who do not want students to participate in weekly COVID testing to opt out, though it only tests a random sample of 20% of students — the kind of program the union in Chicago was calling for. Like Los Angeles, that district did enforce a vaccine mandate for employees even as Chicago backed off its own mandate at the union’s urging.

In New York City, the return from winter break amid the surge has also caused some tension between educators and city leaders. Incoming mayor Eric Adams has stressed keeping schools open to address children’s basic needs and mental health, but after more than a week of dismal attendance, he seemed to relent on a possible remote option. The city’s teachers union — which did not endorse Adams in the election — has repeatedly called for a temporary shift to virtual learning.

At a small number of schools, teachers have staged sickouts, forcing central office staffers to cover classes; they have held rallies as staffing shortages have disrupted learning across the city. But overall, union leaders there have seemed to want to play nice rather than go to the mats with a new mayor and his team, and the mayor downplayed any strife.

“This is not Chicago. This is New York,” Adams said Thursday. “We are communicating with each other because we’re both emotionally intelligent.”

Nationwide, a growing number of districts have opted to revert briefly to learning online, but a large majority have stuck with in-person instruction through the surge so far. Many still struggle to get student COVID testing right.

Lingering resentments

In Chicago, an especially stressful turn in what was an already draining school year for educators and administrators collided with a political dynamic different from that in other cities.

Over the past decade, the Chicago Teachers Union has built a national reputation for flexing its muscle on a slew of issues, challenging the idea of unilateral decision-making in a mayoral control district and setting the tone for labor fights in other cities. It has also aimed to position itself as responsive to rank-and-file sentiment, and, says Jon Shelton, who studies labor unions at the University of Wisconsin in Green Bay, leaders were undoubtedly picking up on growing strain among educators.

“A lot of rank-and-file teachers feel devalued,” Shelton said. “They feel stressed. They feel they have been on the frontlines of keeping schools open.”

The high-stress return from winter break was just the kindling to ignite a deeply contentious relationship with Lightfoot, with roots going back to her 2019 election, when the union vocally backed a rival candidate. The acrimony escalated during the protracted 2019 teacher strike and during one of the country’s most contentious school reopening battles last spring.

That kind of tension isn’t new to the city. Lightfoot’s predecessor, Rahm Emanuel, and the late CTU leader Karen Lewis clashed repeatedly and exchanged harsh words publicly, said Sylvia Puente, who leads the nonprofit Latino Policy Forum and served as an education point person on Gov. JB Pritzker’s transition team. But these two leaders also had high-profile moments of reconciliation, easing tensions by appearing together, Puente said. Lightfoot and union President Jesse Sharkey have not done that.

“With that acrimony, there was never really the opportunity to build trust,” she said. “It takes a spark to explode.”

The deep mistrust was on full display again over the past week, when the union and mayor traded accusations of failing to negotiate in good faith. District CEO Pedro Martinez, who took over in September, said he could not accede to a brief virtual pause because he feared the union would then try to extend it indefinitely.

“The conditions in Chicago perpetually keep the district in a volatile state,” said Bruno.

Bruno said he watched the latest stalemate with rising frustration because he knows both the district and union are sending capable, pragmatic negotiators to the bargaining table.

He points to the groundbreaking teachers contract that came out of the 2019 strike and last spring’s reopening agreement, which became a gold standard for other districts. Union leaders sharply criticized that deal in its immediate aftermath, but have more recently touted it as a model.

But this moment was especially charged for the key players: Lightfoot went into this standoff smarting from a recent state legislature move to shift to an elected school board in Chicago, which she vocally opposed and the union backed. With that looming change, her appointed school board has stayed largely on the sidelines of the COVID protocol battle.

Meanwhile, the union is heading into a spring leadership election. Speculation that CTU vice president Stacy Davis Gates might challenge Lightfoot in the next mayor race is intensifying; Lightfoot’s political action committee sent an email blast Thursday heralding her firm stance on in-person learning.

Martinez “walked into a maelstrom,” as Puente puts it — arriving almost a month into the school year from a district and state with weak teacher unions, and scrambling to play catch up in efforts to expand testing and vaccination. Like his predecessor, Janice Jackson, he was caught between the mayor — not one to shy away from inflammatory statements at the podium — and the union, rendering him and his negotiating team middle managers.

Then, there is the deep mistrust of the district that has buoyed the union in times of crisis — a legacy of historic disinvestment and unpopular school closures under Emanuel on the city’s South and West sides. In Chicago, this history has fueled the rise of an active community nonprofit scene — organizations that have often amplified messaging by the CTU, which has supported some of them financially.

The district’s faltering efforts to provide sufficient student transportation and keep schools clean this fall did not help, said Jitu Brown, the national director for the nonprofit Journey for Justice Alliance, who led a 34-day hunger strike to save a South Side school from closing in 2015.

Ultimately, roughly a third of district students did not show up at schools early last week after the break, reflecting heightened fears about school safety. The district has not meaningfully reached out to parents on safety and other questions this school year, said Brown, a district parent.

“If you are assuming what people need, that’s top-down and often off-base,” he said. “Decisions are made that are not rooted in our lived experiences.”

A sudden end to the impasse

The stalemate in Chicago ended abruptly just when the district seemed poised for a protracted battle. The district agreed to some testing and contract tracing changes and to a school closure metric that sets a relatively high bar for shifting to remote learning. The union gave up on the opt-out testing program and the districtwide closure metric it had insisted on.

Some district insiders said Sharkey and Martinez have made headway in recent months in staying in close touch and striking a more constructive tone. They said the tenor at the negotiation table this time around was much more positive than the public exchange of fire would suggest.

Shelton noted that public support for teachers union labor actions tends to erode the longer they drag on. As a backdrop, there is growing Democratic pressure against shuttering school buildings — an imperative that national union leaders such as American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten have increasingly embraced. Pritzker and the Biden administration stayed in touch with the district and reiterated support for keeping schools open during the impasse.

“A lot of Democrats feel their party’s political future is tied to keeping schools open,” Shelton said.

Peter Cunningham, a Chicago communications consultant and a former assistant U.S. education secretary in the Obama administration, noted that it was increasingly clear Lightfoot was not backing down from her positions. Teachers were not getting paid, and some CTU members — about 15% on the eve of the agreement — were reporting to buildings in defiance of the in-person work stoppage, a development that threatened to erode solidarity long term.

Cunningham said families and teachers paid “a high price” for an agreement that did not significantly move the needle on COVID protocols, though he thinks it strikes the right balance on some issues such as virtual learning metrics.

To Brown, the agreement falls short of what many South and West side families wanted to see, including opt-out testing.

But Bruno believes the agreement will once again set the tone nationally, by affirming that districts need a road map for navigating the pandemic’s disruption now more than ever, and showing that a robust testing program and guidelines for remote learning must be in the mix.

However, community leaders such as Puente worry that this agreement, presented to the public at separate and overlapping press conferences, will not be a salve for the district’s contentious relationship with its teachers union.

She said she’s bracing for more quickly escalating tensions: “The whole city feels battered and bruised from these fights.”

Matt Barnum, Kalyn Belsha, and Amy Zimmer contributed reporting.

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