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CPS Reports Record Number Of New COVID Cases, Amid Fight With CTU Over Return To In-Person Classes

By Dana Kozlov and Charlie De Mar

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Chicago Public Schools officials have reported a record number of new cases of COVID-19 among students and staff, as the district's dispute continues with the Chicago Teachers Union over the return to in-person learning.

CPS reported 422 new cases among students and 271 new cases among adults at schools on Tuesday, the last day the district held in-person classes before CTU voted to have teachers work remotely only, prompting CPS to cancel classes on Wednesday and Thursday. Both figures are more than double the number of new cases on Monday, the first day of classes for CPS after returning from winter break.

It's still unclear if classes will resume on Friday, as CTU has said it plans to have teachers continue working remotely until Jan. 18, unless there is a COVID safety agreement with the district before then. Negotiations between the district and CTU were continuing on Thursday.

CPS Chief Executive Officer Pedro Martinez said Wednesday evening that he had "no choice" but to cancel classes again on Thursday.

This follows a vote by the Chicago Teachers Union to go to virtual learning amid a COVID-19 surge - which prompted Martinez also to cancel classes Wednesday and which he and Mayor Lori Lightfoot are also characterizing as an illegal walkout.

Answering a question from CBS 2's Charlie De Mar Wednesday evening, Mayor Lightfoot also confirmed than an unfair labor practices complaint has been filed. But where it goes depends on what happens at the bargaining table, the mayor said.

"If the mayor needs to drag us into court, you know, in order to try to force us to do what she wants, we're going to go into court and point out that we're doing what we think is necessary," Chicago Teachers Union President Sharkey said earlier in the day.

Martinez on Thursday took aim at the union, saying parents were left hanging without answers until the result of the vote to go remote was announced at nearly 11 p.m. He said it was a "very sad day" as he drove past schools and heard about children crying as they were turned away in the morning.

"It was an illegal strike," Martinez said of the CTU's remote learning action.

"Under state law, we are not authorized to go remote as a district," Martinez said. "We are not authorized."

Martinez said he met with more than 50 principals on Wednesday, and made clear that any remote instruction that CPS does would have to involve emergency days – which are scarce to begin with.

Martinez emphasized that CPS is more than willing to move individual schools to remote learning if COVID-19 cases are on the rise there – but he said a systemwide shutdown is not warranted or allowed.

As to Friday, CPS issued this notice:

"Some schools have enough staff reporting to work to return to in-person instruction as soon as Friday, January 7. Other schools have more limited capacity, and may provide learning packets and other materials for students to use during this illegal work stoppage. Your school's principal will be reaching out to your individual school community regarding what level of instruction they can provide your family. In the meantime, CPS will be working around the clock with principals, staff, and families to return to in-person learning as soon as possible."

Meanwhile, Mayor Lightfoot raised her voice repeatedly at a news conference with Martinez Wednesday evening – asking why the union had taken an action to go remote when the safest place for children is in school.

"The worst possible thing that we can do is abandon the science; abandon the data," Mayor Lightfoot said.

Mayor Lightfoot reiterated her contention that schools are safe, and that $100 million has been invested for ventilation and other mitigation measures in schools.

"We will not relent. Enough is enough. We are standing firm, and we are going to fight to get our kids back in in-person learning," Mayor Lightfoot said. "Period, full stop."

Mayor Lori Lightfoot also questioned the CTU's claim that they plan to go remote until Jan. 18 – which appeared in a memo to teachers upon the announcement of the vote late Tuesday night.

"Do we have any guarantee from them that this arbitrary date they picked will be the date?" the mayor said. "We don't."

The mayor said teachers who show up to school to teach on Friday will be paid, and those who do not show up will not be paid.

"We will not pay you for an unlawful, unilateral strike," the mayor said.

Also at the news conference, Chicago Department of Public Health Director Dr. Allison Arwady said the city's contention that schools are safe is not just based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. She said experts have been collecting data in Chicago throughout the pandemic, and actually found higher levels of infection in both children and staff who were on remote learning than those who were in school in person.

Arwady said COVID-19 is more likely to spread at people's homes where people let their guard down, not at school where there are tight rules in place. She added that while kids often get quarantined as close contacts of people who test positive for COVID-19, very few quarantined kids go on to test positive themselves.

Meanwhile, union leaders also met with the district Wednesday, potentially to hammer out some sort of agreement. The meeting lasted a few hours, and no agreement was reached.

Hundreds of Chicago Public Schools teachers formed a caravan with their cars and honked their horns in Union Park after a day out of the classroom. The signs on their windshields said, "Don't lock us out, let us teach."

The caravan later made its way to City Hall.

"Right now, going into schools puts us at risk," Sharkey said.

A mere three days post-winter break, and all Chicago Public Schools are once again without students in classrooms. The lights went on in CPS schools on Wednesday, but it didn't much matter - once CPS teachers voted to work remotely only, the head of the district did exactly what he said he'd do. He canceled all classes.

"This situation is not one we relish," Sharkey said. "We'd rather be in our classes teaching. We'd like to have in-person school open."

Sharkey said 73 percent of the 20,000 teachers who cast electronic ballots Tuesday voted to go remote due to spiking COVID-19 cases. In a post-vote letter, Sharkey told members they will return in person once the COVID surge "substantially subsides," or the union reaches an agreement with the district that includes a student testing plan.

"Run a test-to-return program the way they have in other cities, and then once you get people back in, then have an effective screening test," Sharkey said.

A spokeswoman for the CTU said she believes teachers would also be required to test for the virus unless they opt out – if any such testing agreement is reached.

If there is no reduction in cases and no agreement, the union said, teachers will be out until Jan. 18, But Mayor Lightfoot said the union does not get to make that call.

"We asked CTU leadership – take a moment, review the plan, come back to us with a response at the bargaining table, delay the vote – do not do an illegal work stoppage," Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Tuesday night. "And to that, the answer was, 'No, sorry, we're moving ahead.'"

Kozlov asked labor lawyer Keri-Lyn Krafthefer how she saw the situation from a labor law perspective.

"Well, it really comes down to who has the ability to determine how and where services are to be provided, and that's an inherent managerial right," Krafthefer said.

Some teachers on Wednesday posted pictures of themselves trying to work remotely, but finding themselves locked out of the system – something that CEO Martinez warned would happen to teachers who did not report in person.

Teachers' pay was cut off along with remote access.

"We do want to get a negotiated agreement," Sharkey said.

Meanwhile, with classes canceled again Thursday, parents are left in limbo forced once again to scramble for alternate plans.

"It's a scramble – I think both logistically as well as mentally," said parent Lisa Zhao.

Teachers also threatened not to return to work at schools last spring, but negotiated a safety plan to get back into schools. That agreement expired at the end of August, and the union said the school board did not feel it needed to negotiate another one.

Mayor Lightfoot said city officials have been talking with the union for months, but the bottom line is that no current safety agreement exists.

For Thursday, CPS noted that take-home breakfasts and lunches will be available at CPS schools from 9 a.m. to noon for anyone under 18 who needs a meal.

Families who need child care options can go to any Safe Haven site – all of which CPS has listed. Sites will be open from 8 a.m. until 3 p.m.

Chicago Park District field houses will also be open and available to kids 6 and older, and Chicago Public Library locations are open during normal hours – though kids may not be left at libraries unattended. Community-based organizations are also offering daytime programs for kids citywide.

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