‘Relentlessly Stubborn’: After a Week-Long Strike, Chicago Mayor and Teachers End Standoff That Kept Hundreds of Thousands Of Students In Limbo

Chicago officials and teachers have ended a six-day standoff that kept hundreds of thousands of children in Chicago Public Schools education on hold.

The Chicago Teachers Union ended the district-wide strike it initiated last week after compromising with Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS officials.

Members of the Chicago Teachers Union and their supporters participate in a car caravan around City Hall to protest against in-person learning in Chicago public schools on January 10, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

“It was not an agreement that had everything, it’s not a perfect agreement, but it’s certainly something we can hold our heads up about, partly because it was so difficult to get,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey told reporters.

Under CTU’s proposed agreement, CPS will temporarily switch to remote learning and increase prevention measures during the current COVID-19 surge. Chicago officials initially opposed the CTU’s demand for remote learning over concerns that keeping children out of brick-and-mortar schools may be too detrimental to the mostly Black and Latino district, The Associated Press reports.

Most U.S. school districts have reverted to in-person learning despite record COVID-19 infection rates nationwide.

Some states, including Florida and Boston, have blocked remote learning, while school districts in New Jersey, Ohio, Michigan, Washington and Wisconsin have transitioned to remote learning, the AP reports.

In Illinois, the decision to reopen school lies with local officials. In Chicago, the decision impacts 350,000 students.

The CTU wants to test students and staff at each school once a week for COVID-19 once in-person instruction resumes. Schools with high positivity rates would revert to remote learning under CTU’s plan. According to ABC7 Chicago, one school in the district as of Monday has reported COVID-19 infections in 15 of its 18 classrooms.

CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said the CTU voted to strike last Tuesday night, but he and Lightfoot said the move is illegal. Teachers had vowed not to return to classrooms until an agreement is reached.

A CTU House of Delegates voted Monday to suspend the walkout while they await a final vote by rank-and-file members. The final details of the agreement have not been released.

The strike kept teachers out of classrooms since last Wednesday. They returned Tuesday, Jan. 11, for planning.

The dispute over remote instruction is part of an ongoing duel between Lightfoot and the CTU. The union supported Lightfoot’s opponent during the 2019 election, and this is the second strike the CTU has launched since she has taken office. Sharkey had blamed Lightfoot for prolonging the current impasse.

“The mayor is being relentless, but she’s being relentlessly stupid, she’s being relentlessly stubborn,” Sharkey had told reporters. “She’s relentlessly refusing to seek accommodation, and we’re trying to find a way to get people back in school.”

Lightfoot told NBC’s “Meet the Press” moderator Chuck Todd that she understood the CTU’s concerns, but if teachers and the city worked “collaboratively,” they could have continued in-person learning safely.

“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 said during an interview on Sunday. “They are safe. We’ve got the data to demonstrate that.”

CPS has spent $100 million on its COVID-19 safety plan and spent two years of on-the-ground research. CPS Health Administrator Dr. Allison Arwady said the district’s research shows that 98 percent to 99 percent of the students who were exposed to COVID-19 and ordered to quarantine did not develop the virus.

“That is because all of the mitigation measures are in place,” Arwady said during a press conference on Wednesday.

The AP reports that about 91 percent of staff are vaccinated, and masks are required indoors. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced on Saturday that his office had secured enough antigen tests for every student in the district.

Attorneys at the Liberty Justice Center filed a lawsuit on behalf of several Chicago families over the closures last week. More than 5,000 people have signed a petition calling for a return to in-person learning. Some parents, fearing learning loss and mental health issues among their children, rallied against the school district in the predominantly Black and Latino West Side Monday.

A small number of schools are opened for “in-person activities” for students, and the district is still offering meals for pickup.

Lightfoot dismissed Sharkey’s comments during an interview with ABC7 Chicago on Monday. He had also accused Lightfoot of bullying teachers.

“If I had a dollar for every time some privileged, clouted white guy called me stupid, I’d be a bazillionaire,” she said. “This has got to be about getting our kids back in school.”

Both sides have filed labor complaints against the other, the AP reports.

In the end, Lightfoot said she would put the students at the “front and center” of her decision.

“We know this has been very difficult for students and families,” Lightfoot said at Monday evening news conference. “No one wins when students are out of a place where they can learn the best and where they’re safest.”

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