CHICAGO — Omicron is surging. Virus testing for schools is a mess. Teachers are demanding remote schooling; education officials are saying no.
And Chicago parents do not know what to expect on Wednesday morning.
The latest Covid-19 surge has disrupted education across the country, but in Chicago, it has led to a bitter confrontation with the teachers’ union. On Tuesday, two days into the new semester, members of the union’s House of Delegates voted in favor of refusing to report to school buildings starting on Wednesday; parents and city officials were anxiously awaiting the results of an online vote of the union’s full membership.
The Chicago Teachers Union — which has had a long, confrontational relationship with the city — hoped the vote would push the city to transition to remote learning. But Chicago officials insist in-person learning is necessary and safe, and responded by saying they would cancel classes if teachers did not report to school buildings, but keep the buildings open for emergency child care.
“Nobody signs up for being a home-schooler at the last minute,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said at a news conference. “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 the highly contagious Omicron variant rears its head, so do debates that were considered settled. After a relatively calm fall, when administrators, unions and families largely agreed that remote schooling was a nonstarter, the brinkmanship between the nation’s third-largest school 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 coronavirus 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.
“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.”
Coronavirus cases have skyrocketed in Chicago to their highest level 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 Covid-19 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…