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Chicago Teachers Union To Vote On Remote Learning For CPS Students Amid COVID-19 Surge

By Suzanne Le Mignot and Charlie De Mar

CHICAGO (CBS) -- On Monday, the very day Chicago Public Schools kids returned to school after winter break, there was a threat that they may go back to remote learning.

On Tuesday, CPS chief Pedro Martinez said schools would remain open but classes would be canceled on Wednesday if teachers voted to teach remotely. Martinez said he wants students in school and learning in the classroom.

The Chicago Teachers Union is voting Tuesday – asking its members if they support staying out of the classroom until they feel it is safe to return.

"Until we do this - draw a line in the snow - then they react," said Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates.

Usually, it is just the House of Delegates that make decisions on such issues. But a CTU spokesperson said since remote learning is such a critically important decision, all 25,000 members of the rank-and-file are also being asked to weigh in on this by electronic ballot on Tuesday.

"My question to the mayor and CPS is simple - what will it take to shut down a school building when COVID is running rampant?" said CTU delegate Briana Hambright-Hall.

Hambright-Hall is a school counselor and CTU delegate at Park Manor Elementary School. The CTU said during winter break, the school had a large number of COVID-19 cases.

"We are here again for a second time in a week, discussing the same safety concerns and issues dealing with our school community," Hambright-Hall said.

The union and some parents are asking for increased testing and better masks.

"What will it take to shut down a building where COVID is running rampant?" Habmright-Hall said. "Please listen, Mayor Lightfoot and CPS team — when is enough enough?"

Sonja Hammond is a Park Manor Elementary parent.

"Until these kids are safe, my kids will be at home on remote learning," Hammond said. "We need N95 masks. You're sending kids to school with siblings that are positive."

The House of Delegates will be meeting at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday to vote on whether to return to remote learning as early as Wednesday. After the House of Delegates meets, an electronic ballot will go out to all teachers asking them the same question.

CPS parent Sharon Winkfield said children should be learning remotely with the rise in COVID-19 cases. Winkfield also said remote learning shouldn't mean a student's attendance record is impacted.

"Why must our families choose between being marked absent and bringing their child to school when this disease is running rampant?" Winkfield said. "To ask us to choose between punishment and safety - please. I mean, we love our children, and we want them to stay alive. We want them to be here. We want them to get a good education, but they can't do that if they're dead."

CPS parents had children complete COVID-19 test kits in order for students to return to school. Between Dec. 26 and Jan. 1, there were 1,870 students who tested positive for COVID-19.

A total of 35,223 tests were completed. OF those tests, 24,836 were invalid for several reasons, among shipping delay issues. Eighteen percent tested positive for the virus.

"It is really unfortunate that the mayor and CPS administration had poor planning on their part with the test kits being delivered, analyzed, and some test results coming back with unsatisfactory samples," Hambright-Hall said.

In a statement, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the pandemic has shown schools are the safest place to be for students. She said $100 million spent on putting mitigations in place and with most teachers vaccinated, there is little transmission of the virus is seen in school settings.

Mayor Lightfoot also said in a statement that remote learning is not a "panacea" and comes with its own costs – including "significant learning loss," "severe hardship on families who had to work and could not home-school students," "mental health trauma arising from isolation," and other factors.

Mayor Lightfoot did not take any questions from local reporters as she toured a gym now enforcing the city's vaccine mandate. But she also said in a national interview that the safest place for students is in the classroom - not at home e-learning.

"We know that learning loss was profound," Mayor Lightfoot said. "We know that there were huge gaps in achievement. We know that the mental health and trauma issues of our students was real."

But parent Taneka Griffin Lindsey fired back: "From one parent to another, how dare you? How dare you use my child's health and put her in a situation where it's not safe?"

Cities including Atlanta, Detroit, and Milwaukee either opted for online instruction or delayed the return to class altogether due to Omicron concerns and growing staff shortages.

"We think in-person learning is the best for our children, but at the same time, their health is first," Lindsey said.

As to what would happen if teachers vote overwhelmingly to work remotely and do not show up for work Wednesday, CPS spokeswoman Mary Ann Fergus said in a statement:

"CEO (Pedro) Martinez is really hopeful that it won't come to that. CEO Martinez and the CTU leadership have been talking today and will continue to talk and work to find solutions."

Martinez will be speaking at City Hall at 11 a.m. Tuesday.

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