Chicago Public School teachers returned to their schools on Tuesday after reaching an agreement on COVID-19 safeguards with the district, ending a walkout that canceled classes across the third largest school system in the United States for a week.
The system’s 340,000 students are due back to school on Wednesday after the Chicago Teachers Union’s House of Delegates voted on Monday night to end a weeklong walkout over COVID-19 fears. The walkout began with a union vote to reinstate virtual instruction and a push for more rigorous safety protocols, including wider testing, as the Omicron variant spread.
While most U.S. public school districts have reopened their campuses for the new year, education systems in some major cities have opted for online learning or delayed back-to-classroom plans due to staff shortages, in some cases caused by COVID illnesses.
The United States reported 1.35 million new coronavirus infections on Monday, according to a Reuters tally, the highest daily total for any country in the world as the spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant showed no signs of slowing.
The seven-day average of cases in Chicago showed indications of a decrease last week, dropping 8% since the week prior that saw 5,200 cases. While the third largest U.S. city has seen a spike in cases, Mayor Lori Lightfoot has pushed for schools to remain open.
“Switching completely back to remote learning again without a public health reason to do so would have created and amplified the social, emotional and economic turmoil that far too many of our families are facing,” she said at a news conference.
The dispute was tense. Lightfoot and the district had branded the walkout illegal and said teachers’ pay would be docked. The union had accused the mayor and school officials of “locking out” teachers by freezing their online instruction platforms.
The agreement calls for increased testing and contact tracing in schools, creates metrics for the district to go remote and includes a commitment to secure additional KN95 masks for staff and students, the Chicago Tribune reported.
During a news conference on Monday, Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey said the deal was not ideal but “it does include some important things which are going to help safeguard ourselves and our schools.”
(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien; editing by Donna Bryson and Jonathan Oatis)