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Chicago Teachers Union Votes In Favor Of Going To Remote Learning; CPS CEO Martinez Says Such A Vote Means Schools Will Be Open, But Classes Canceled

By Megan Hickey and Charlie De Mar

CHICAGO (CBS) -- The Chicago Teachers Union voted Tuesday night in favor of going to remote learning for Chicago Public Schools classes amid a COVID-19 surge.

CPS Chief Executive Officer Pedro Martinez said if the CTU voted for remote learning and not to return to classrooms, there would be no classes Wednesday.

The CTU told its teachers in a memo that Jan. 18 will be the next day of in-person instruction, but CPS has not yet addressed the plan beyond canceling classes Wednesday - and Mayor Lori Lightfoot earlier said the union does not get to make such a decision.

When a reporter asked late Tuesday whether CPS would go ahead and switch to remote learning if a CTU action had teachers not showing up to school for multiple days, Mayor Lightfoot said: "The CTU doesn't make decisions about how our CPS system works. The CEO does. He's the boss."

The union said the vote in favor of a remote-work-only job action was 73 percent.

The vote by teachers came after a total of 88 percent of the members of the Chicago Teachers Union House of Delegates also voted in favor of moving to remote The electronic vote for all union members was to be open until 9 p.m., but was later extended to 10 p.m. - with parents remaining in suspense about whether there would be school on Wednesday.

The results of the electronic vote were not released until nearly 11 p.m.

In a news release, the CTU said in part:

"Let us be clear. The educators of this city want to be in their classrooms with their students. We believe that our city's classrooms are where our students should be. Regrettably, the Mayor and her CPS leadership have put the safety and vibrancy of our students and their educators in jeopardy.

"To the parents and guardians of this city, we want you to know that when you put your children in our care we put their well-being and safety first. We fight for your children like they are our own, because they are. As this pandemic continues, we will do everything in our power to ensure that our classrooms are the safest and healthiest places for your children to learn, thrive and grow.

"We also understand the frustration that is felt by tonight's decision, and assure our families that we will continue to work diligently, as we have for months, to encourage the Mayor and her CPS leadership team to at last commit to enforceable safety protections centered on the well-being of our students, their families and our school communities."

Martinez said school buildings will be open and teachers, staff and students are welcome to come to classrooms - but classes will be called off on Wednesday.

"If they do take a vote to do a walkout tomorrow, I have to cancel classes," Martinez said earlier Tuesday. "I am not closing the schools. The schools are going to be open. And so again, all staff will be welcome to come to school because we are going to have a plan for our families. I am not going to let our parents down."

CPS officials said a CTU vote to authorize teachers to work remotely beginning Wednesday would amount to an illegal strike.

"A vote to stop reporting to work would cause profound harm to children's learning and health and be another damaging blow to the well being of our students and their families," CPS added in a statement.

Sources had earlier said the union's vote could keep teachers out of the classroom for at least a couple of weeks unless an agreement is reached sooner with CPS or COVID rates dip below a certain level.

"The teachers are being put in the unfortunate situation where we are trying to keep people safe and we aren't being given the tools to do so," said Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey.

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Meanwhile, Martinez said he understood why parents may be uncomfortable with the idea of sending kids to schools, with the COVID Omicron surge.

"I respect families who said yesterday: 'You know, I'm a little scared. So CEO, if you don't mind, we're going keep our children at home.' You know, I can work with those families, right?" Martinez said. "We can work with them, but not to give them the choice. I'm sorry, I just don't think that's right."

But Martinez also said he is frustrated with the amount of "misinformation" that is being spread as to the safety of school buildings.

"At this point, the misinformation and anxiety is so high and I saw it firsthand. I was visiting schools I wanted to get a sense myself. What I was seen. And like I said, in some schools, it is just at an extreme level to the point where there is no logic behind it. There's no science behind it," Martinez said.

Late Tuesday, CBS 2's Charlie De Mar asked Martinez what the consequences would be if teachers do not show up to work.

"The simple answer is if people want to be compensated, they have to show up for work," Martinez said. "If you want to be compensated, you have to show up for work. It's really that simple."

Martinez also emphasized that the Chicago Board of Education cannot authorize remote days on a citywide basis – the decision has to come from state or local public health officials on an emergency basis. If classes go remote without such a decision, remote days or days on which classes are canceled do not count toward state academic attainment rules, Martinez said.

As the Omicron surge grips Chicago, Martinez and Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said students need to be in school, as it's a very safe space.

"We need kids to get vaccinated, but I remain extremely comfortable with children continuing in person education," Arwady said.

Martinez presented his proposal to the CTU, which includes a school level metric by which individual schools could transition to remote learning, as well as a return to daily health screenings and temperature checks for schools that want them.

"COVID is the enemy - not the CTU, not us," Martinez said, But it is, I wish I wish we could all be on the same page providing accurate information to our families, because I'm seeing the fear."

In a tweet, CTU responded, saying the counterproposal was shared with them only "eight minutes prior to this press conference." But the union said it planned to meet with the mayor's bargaining team Tuesday afternoon.

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

Martinez said he applauded the way the city had the schools ready for students to return after the holiday break.

"There was a great decision to invest in the schools in the filtration systems. There was a great decision to have masks available for every single child for every single staff person. It was a great decision to prioritize vaccinations for a staff and actually to ask every step to get vaccinated. All those decisions are paid off. There was never a need for any kind of agreement. I think the the challenge that I would I wish if I had a magic wand, I wish all of us were providing good information to families," Martinez said.

Martinez would not directly identify CTU for being a source of misinformation, but said some of that misinformation centers around schools not being safe.

"The biggest misinformation that I see right now that I can tell you is complete myths about our schools, our schools being unsafe. completeness, that we're seeing high levels of completion across the school across classrooms," Martinez said.

Meanwhile at an unrelated news conference Tuesday afternoon, Mayor Lightfoot emphasized the damage caused by sending the entire school system to remote learning. She noted that the city has paid more than $100 million in mitigations such as ventilation and HEPA filters in classrooms, masks, and other safety protocols.

Last time the Chicago Public Schools went to all-remote learning, the mayor said, "what we saw was 100,000 children – particularly Black and Brown children – that were disconnected from the system and learning." Mayor Lightfoot also said CPS saw a three-fold increase in failing grades among elementary school kids during remote learning last time around.

Mayor Lightfoot added that all-remote learning also resulted in "social-emotional trauma," because students were disconnected from their social networks that "keep them healthy mentally and emotionally."

"The worst ting that we can do is shut the entire system down," Mayor Lightfoot said.

Rather than an "illegal work stoppage," the mayor said, the focus should be on getting kids vaccinated against COVID-19. She said calls for all-remote learning seem to overlook the fact that a vaccine is available for COVID-19 now, whereas it was not during the past long stretch of pandemic remote learning.

"Why on earth, when we don't need to pause, would we pause and risk falling back into the same trap?" Lightfoot said. "Achievement gaps are real, and they are affecting kids of color at an exponential rate."

Lightfoot said she and Dr. Arwady are "leaning into the science" when it comes to COVID-19 response. Without naming the Chicago Teachers Union in this case, she said calls to close down schools are rooted in "fearmongering and hysteria."

But 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."

On Tuesday, Dr. Arwady said the high number of COVID cases in the city is alarming. But contrary to some concerns being expressed, Arwady said children are not dying or even getting seriously ill at high rates at all.

"We continue to be in the very high transmission category for cases averaging now over 4,500 per day. We also have a test positivity of 23.6% in the city of Chicago," Arwady said. "The news is not good. The COVID case rate in Chicago is the highest it has been since the beginning of the pandemic."

Dr. Arwady added that the best defense against COVID-19 and the Omicron variant is getting vaccinated. She said she too is hearing a lot of misinformation regarding children and COVID infections.

"One of the things I'm hearing the most misinformation about is that Chicago hospitals are filling up with children, that many Chicago children are dying of COVID, that it's a really scary time to be a child right now with COVID in Chicago. And I want you to understand that well of course we are concerned about the rise in hospitalizations that is being driven by unvaccinated adults," Arwady said. "Child COVID hospitalizations remain very rare across the whole city approximately 550,000 children. We are averaging just seven COVID hospitalizations a day right now for children ages zero to 17."

Arwady said Chicago kids 17 and under are being diagnosed with COVID-19 at a higher rate thanks to the holiday break, but said kid COVID hospitalizations "remain very rare."

"I want to just reassure you, especially if you are vaccinated; if your child is vaccinated, this is behaving like the flu - and we don't close school districts for an extended amount of time because of the flu," Arwady said.

One teacher said the situation was not ideal, but remote learning still the best plan under the circumstances.

"If it's just for a short while and it means we are all healthy and alive, I think it's worth it," said CPS teacher and parent Kelly Lindsey.

Lindsey, of course, sees it from both sides as both a teacher and parent.

"Believe me, I would rather not teach remotely," she said. "However, it's better to teach remotely than not at all."

'It Feels Like Groundhog Day'

On Tuesday evening as the teachers cast their electronic ballots, Lightfoot, Martinez, and Arwady returned for another news conference - expressing frustration as they reiterated their concerns. Martinez said at the district level, there had not been any significant challenges with regard to COVID-19. He said numerous safety measures are in place – including filtration systems that are monitored in every classroom.

"At a district level, we have not had any significant challenges, and I can't help again just being very frustrated and concerned that we continue to look at literally a district-wide walkout that is depriving families of a choice," Martinez said.

Mayor Lightfoot said "it feels like Groundhog Day" to be amid a showdown with the CTU on a weekday evening "after everything that we've gone through over the years with the CTU leadership."

The mayor said the CTU was poised to "make a decision that will harm hundreds of thousands of Chicago families that rely upon CPS for their needs," including education, nutrition, and safety.

Lightfoot said Martinez had asked if he could address CTU members directly and also asked CTU President Jesse Sharkey to delay the vote – but Sharkey refused.

The mayor also reiterated that decisions can be made on a school-by-school basis on whether going remote is a good idea, but to shut down the whole system ignores the fact that there is now a vaccine for COVID-19 and has been for a year – and also jeopardizes children's education and social development.

Lightfoot said if public health experts believed shutting down the entire CPS system were the right move now, she would be in favor of it. But she said the fact is there is nothing in "the data, the science, or common sense" to warrant shutting down the entire CPS system when the issue of COVID-19 infections can be evaluated school by school.

Mayor Lightfoot also said most parents want their kids in school in person – and the detrimental effect that going fully remote has on parents must be acknowledged.

"Nobody signs up for being a home-schooler at the last minute," she said.

Also at the Tuesday evening news conference, Arwady emphasized again that indeed Chicago is in a COVID-19 surge with many people in the hospital. But she said it makes no sense to close something as essential as in-person education when venues such as bars are open.

"Do you know what the maxim is that public health leaders share when we talk to each other?" Arwady said. "Schools – first to open, last to close."

Arwady noted that schools are open in Europe amid an Omicron COVID-19 surge. Schools are also open in New York City, which now has a higher COVID-19 positivity rate in Chicago.

She also said studies have shown COVID-19 rates are actually lower when students and staff are in school than when they're out. Further, Arwady reiterated, kids are not likely to be hospitalized without COVID-19 vaccinations – let alone with vaccinations.

There have been no vaccinated 5- to 11-year-olds sent to the hospital in Chicago, Arwady said.

Martinez and Lightfoot said they hoped teachers will yet come to work on Wednesday regardless of the CTU vote.

"Imagine somebody coming you and saying, 'We're going to make a decision about whether your children are going to come to school tomorrow at 9 o'clock tonight, for tomorrow,'" Martinez said.

Caught in the middle of all this are CPS parents, who are once again left with the tough choice of what to do with their kids if teachers aren't in class.

"We need to make alternate plans for her," said parent Vinoth Alphonse.

"I would obviously prefer it to be in person," said parent Praveen Sivaraman. "That is always good for the kids."

But one young CPS student made it clear she doesn't want to return to e-learning

"Because I love school and I love my teachers," she said.

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