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Latest updates: Most Chicago schools will be closed for a third day

Students work on computers together as teachers look over their shoulders.

Chicago schools are closed a second day to students as city officials and the teachers union negotiate over reopening amid a COVID-19 surge

Lauren Miller for Chalkbeat

8:00 p.m. Talks ‘productive’

In a brief statement, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and schools chief Pedro Martinez said that bargaining started at noon Thursday and went into the evening. “The sessions were productive from our perspective.”

5:30 p.m. Most Chicago schools will be closed a third day

Thursday brought more uncertainty for Chicago Public Schools families — including about whether their schools might offer in-person activities or classes Friday — as a dispute with the city’s teachers’ union stretches on.

But by early evening, most district-run schools were informing families that they would be closed the next day, with a few opening with mostly enrichment activities.

Meanwhile, some of the city’s charters, including Noble Charter Network, remain open for full instruction, while others have closed temporarily for remote learning as the city’s positivity rate rises.

District CEO Pedro Martinez had said earlier in the week that some schools have enough teachers and staff reporting to campus to offer some instruction or activities for students Friday. He said some principals implored him to give them a chance to welcome students back that day. 

Indeed, some schools announced they would provide in-person enrichment activities on Friday. Uplift Early College STEAM High School on the North Side said it would offer activities for students from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., including yoga and mindfulness, tutoring, college application support, hip-hop dance, and poetry.

O.A. Thorp on the city’s Northwest Side planned to offer a daylong series of activities including reading, math, and arts, but learning will be mostly supervised by non-teaching staff, such as janitors, bus attendants and lunch aides, the administration told families. The school anticipated special education students and children of parents who work outside the home would attend and said aftercare would be available.

Bateman Elementary on the Northwest Side told parents that with the help of 15 teaching assistants, the school would offer a half day of activities for families “in dire need of support.” The school noted that participation would have no impact on a student’s attendance and grades, and it would not count as an instruction day. 

But other schools announced Thursday that they would not offer any in-person activities on Friday though they would hand out breakfast and lunch until noon. Ray Elementary in Hyde Park said on its website that there would be no classes Friday and parents should not send their children to school, but they could pick up books and learning materials from the main office.

At Julian High School on the city’s Far South Side, a note to families said classes were canceled but offered a link to “independent learning projects” that students could pursue. 

One elementary principal said his school would not offer in-person activities Friday because administrators and the small number of educators reporting to work in person did not want to compromise their relationships with colleagues. 

Some educators blasted the district’s approach of letting individual schools work out what they could provide, arguing it is not equitable because staffing challenges tend to be steeper on the city’s South and West sides.

The district did not immediately respond to a request for more information on how many and which campuses would be open for student activities. 

But in a letter to parents Thursday, Martinez said the district is working with schools to see what they could offer Friday. 

“Some schools have enough staff reporting to work to return to in-person instruction as soon as Friday,” he wrote. “Other schools have more limited capacity, and may provide learning packets and other materials for students to use during this illegal work stoppage.” 

The district said about 13% of teachers and 15% of substitute teachers reported to work in person Thursday. It reiterated in a statement that those educators who did not come to campuses would not be paid. 

The city has compiled a list of safe haven sites, such as churches, for parents who need child care. Chicago Park District field houses are open and available to students six and older, the district has said. — Mila Koumpilova

2:15 p.m. Negotiations continue

Chicago Public Schools said in an afternoon update that negotiations are continuing with the teachers union over reopening campuses and whether to do so in-person or remotely. The district, which has said it will not pay teachers who don’t come to work in person, said that 12.82% of teachers and 15.3% of substitutes reported to school buildings Thursday and that some schools may have enough staff to reopen Friday. 

District officials urged parents to await instructions from schools. 

What you are hearing from your school about in-person classes or activities?
You can share your experience and forward letters from principals to Chalkbeat at chicago.tips@chalkbeat.org.

2:00 p.m. Student journalists work the story

Chicago high school student journalists Iliana Garner and Alex Burstein have been watching from their living rooms as the standoff between Chicago Public Schools and the teachers unfolds. The teens, who work for their campus newspapers and are part of a program for teen journalists at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, interviewed some of their peers and filed these reports. 

At Lane Tech, sophomore Sean Groh awaits news. His weekdays are usually busy, between being class president, participating on sports teams, serving as a student Local School Council representative, and attending class and socializing. Now he’s at home.

“It can get really stressful when reading the news,” Groh said. “I think CPS and CTU need to sit down fast and start compromising. They need to realize that the kids are getting stressed about this, whether being remote or in person.”

At Northside College Prep, Garner interviewed a senior who expressed concern about returning to in-person classes. Sana Nanalawa, 18, has been helping her mother take care of a 7-year-old sibling. She doesn’t feel comfortable returning to school when COVID cases and virus-related absences have been steadily rising. 

She’s also upset that teachers are locked out from their online accounts, including crucial resources like Naviance, a college preparation website that many CPS high schools use. 

“When parents argue teachers should return to their jobs, it’s difficult when the mayor is stopping you from doing so,” Nanalawa said. 

1:00 p.m. Dueling complaints

Even as they each argue their case in the court of public opinion, the Chicago Teachers Union and Chicago Board of Education have filed official labor complaints against each other with the state’s education labor relations board. 

It’s unclear whether the board will rule during the course of the current dispute over the district’s COVID protocols, which has shut down classes in Chicago schools for the second day. 

The union filed its first complaint against the school district the last week of December. claiming CPS failed to provide information about positive coronavirus cases in schools. This week, the union filed another complaint on Jan. 5 in response to the district canceling classes and locking teachers out of their work emails. 

Union president Jesse Sharkey  stated in a letter Wednesday that the board of education has shown “no respect for the bargaining process.” 

“They falsely claim that we’re engaging in an illegal strike, when we WANT to teach but can’t because they’ve locked us out,” Sharkey said. 

The city’s board of education filed a complaint on Jan. 4 that includes a cease-and-desist order against the union and for the labor relations board to hear the case on an expedited basis. 

This is just the latest dispute between CPS and the teachers union to end up with the state labor court. 

In December 2020, the union filed an unfair labor practice suit to try to block the district’s reopening efforts, claiming that the district wasn’t bargaining in good faith. The court sided with the school district 2-1, a move considered a green light to reopening in January. 

Schools did reopen in January for a small group of students — preschoolers and special education students in cluster programs — but struggled to stay open in the face of union pushback over safety measures. Ultimately, the two sides reached an agreement to reopen schools under a mostly hybrid schedule with some remote learning and some in-person learning for those who opted in. — Samantha Smylie

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