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Chicago Public Schools Classes Canceled Again Monday As City, Teachers Union Negotiate

by Shardaa Gray and Asal Rezaei

CHICAGO (CBS) -- As the Chicago Public Schools enters a fourth day of canceled classes amid a dispute with the Chicago Teachers Union over COVID-19 safety measures, including remote learning, the head of the union accused Mayor Lori Lightfoot of being "relentlessly stupid" in ongoing negotiations.

CTU President Jesse Sharkey said Monday morning that the two sides still have yet to reach an agreement on key sticking points in talks over resuming classes, after the union voted last week to have teachers work remotely amid the latest COVID-19 surge, prompting the district to cancel the past four days of classes.

One of those sticking points is the metrics that would be used to switch individual schools from in-person classes to remote learning if there's a COVID outbreak, but Sharkey said "we're hitting a brick wall on that" in negotiations.

"We feel like we're at a point where we don't have enough at the table to be able to go back to the people who frankly have sacrificed a lot at this point, and confidently say, 'This is something that can help us ensure our safety,'" Sharkey said. "Basically, the mayor is being relentless; but she's being relentlessly stupid. She's being relentlessly stubborn. She's relentlessly refusing to seek accommodation. And we're trying to find a way to get people back in school."

Over the weekend, the union had proposed having teachers and staff return to schools on Monday to distribute devices and materials for remote learning this week, and to sign up students for testing, with in-person classes resuming next week on Jan. 18.

But Lightfoot immediately rejected that proposal, and has made it clear she wants students back in classrooms right away.

Meantime, dozens of drivers took part in a car caravan protest Monday morning, demanding better safety measures before students return to schools.

The caravan started in Hegewisch, making its way north through several neighborhoods en route to City Hall.

Some cars bore signs saying, "until cases decline class is online" or "stay remote, save lives."

Teachers and parents taking part in the caravan were united in their message that they want kids back in class as long as it's safe. With the current surge in COVID cases in Chicago, they said the safest place for kids to be learning right now is at home.

"Parents, community members can see we're out here, we're fighting, we want to teach; and then we're all going to be converging downtown. We're going to turn the city into a parking lot, because business as usual can't continue until they end this lockout," teacher Lauren Bianchi said.

"The best way back to school is from home learning," CPS parent Marie Ortega said.

CTU and CPS officials negotiated until late Sunday night, and returned to the table Monday morning. Lightfoot and CPS officials said they will provide an update once they've "made substantial progress."

While Lightfoot disputes the union's remote learning request, her office is quietly allowing its employees to continue temporarily working from home.

But the mayor's office said this is not an apples to apples comparison, going on to say it's disingenuous to compare the City of Chicago's telework policy to the Chicago Teacher's Union leadership's attempt to unilaterally impose system-wide remote schooling on hundreds of thousands of families through an illegal work stoppage.

The city goes on to say its work arrangement has been in place since March 2020 and recently department heads were given the discretion to provide flexibility in ways that don't impact the delivery of essential services.

The city considers teachers essential workers, though teachers worked remotely for more than a year.

The Chicago Teachers Union responded to CBS 2, saying it remains in bargaining for the safety of the students and school communities.

The CTU says this battle between it, CPS and Lightfoot has been a bargaining table for the past six months.

CPS Parent Megan Hasse sides with the mayor and wants kids back in the classroom but also says there should be options for parents to choose in-person learning or to stay remote.

"I think that there has to be an option for both sides of this argument," she said. "Those that want to go in person who, for there kid that is the best option, they should be able to do that. And for those that want remote, we need to be able to provide options for them as well."

Sunday night, the Chicago Department of Public Health hosted a forum to answer questions to give clarity to CPS parents about returning kids to school during the Omicron surge.

"The rate of child hospitalizations is broadly similar to what we would see in a bad flu year," said Dr. Allison Arwady, Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health.

Arwady says that's not true for adults, especially for unvaccinated adults.

"But luckily for kids, it is unusual for them to get seriously ill," she said.

Arwady said since the beginning of this school year, CPS has had 53 outbreaks across 51 schools, which is out of 500 CPS schools. She said most of the outbreaks were students, which was about 64%.

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