Covid Live Updates: Chicago Cancels Public School Classes in Clash With Teachers

The C.D.C., criticized for not mandating that people be tested after five days of isolation, stands firm on not requiring a negative test to leave isolation. The British prime minister said schools and businesses would remain open as Omicron drives up cases but not deaths.

Students leaving Darwin Elementary School in Chicago on Tuesday.Credit…Taylor Glascock for The New York Times

Public school officials in Chicago canceled classes for Wednesday amid a clash with the teachers’ union, whose members had threatened to stay home in a bid to force instruction online during a coronavirus surge.

Union members had criticized the district’s response to the Omicron variant, which has pushed cases in the city to record levels, and said conditions in classrooms were unsafe. The Chicago Teachers Union said late Tuesday night that 73 percent of members who voted favored pausing in-person instruction.

But Mayor Lori Lightfoot said reverting to online schooling was unacceptable and unnecessary, and her administration decided to call off class altogether — keeping the buildings open for emergency child care — rather than return to virtual instruction.

“Nobody signs up for being a home-schooler at the last minute,” Ms. Lightfoot said. “We can’t forget about how disruptive that remote process is to individual parents who have to work, who can’t afford the luxury of staying home.”

Ms. Lightfoot, a Democrat, urged teachers to report to work and suggested they were considering an illegal work stoppage.

As highly contagious Omicron rears its head, so do debates that were considered settled. After a relatively calm fall, when school administrators, unions and families largely agreed that remote schooling was a nonstarter, the brinkmanship between the third-largest U.S. district and its union exposes just how quickly that political consensus can fall away.

Like other school systems, Chicago has had to confront a shortage of tests, and a far from universal vaccination rate among students. There have been large numbers of staff members calling in sick, and widespread anxiety among just about everyone. Other districts, including in Cleveland, Milwaukee and Atlanta, have also gone online temporarily, but without a public labor dispute. The ongoing chaos has unnerved parents who are desperate for some kind of stability.

Coronavirus cases have skyrocketed in Chicago to their highest rate since the pandemic began. But as in the rest of the country, vaccinated adults have had lower rates of hospitalization and death, while children of all ages — regardless of vaccination status — have overwhelmingly been spared severe outcomes.

In addition, data from Chicago and elsewhere shows that in-school transmission of the coronavirus has been limited, with a majority of teacher and student cases originating outside school buildings. More than 90 percent of Chicago Public Schools employees are fully vaccinated.

Still, members of the powerful Chicago Teachers Union have accused the school district of failing to adjust to Omicron, and the growing threat of breakthrough infections. During the holiday break, they had asked for either universal P.C.R. testing of students and staff or a two-week transition to remote learning.

“We are between a rock and a hard place — the rock being the pandemic, the hard place being an intractable, incompetent mayor,” Stacy Davis Gates, the union’s vice president, said this week. She added, “We said a two-week pause so they could get themselves together, have the proper communication, put in the necessary mitigations.”

— Mitch Smith and Dana Goldstein

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