School will reopen at last in Chicago on Wednesday after the teachers union and the city agreed to boost pandemic safety measures, ending a standoff that canceled classes for 340,000 students in the nation’s third-largest district. The deal expands testing, enhances contact-tracing efforts and brings Chicago into closer alignment with the rest of the country.
The omicron surge has spurred illness, anxiety and scrambling coast to coast. But the vast majority of school systems are operating in person, a sign of resolve to avoid the academic and social harms remote education inflicted last academic year. Last week, in-person school was disrupted at about 5,400 schools at some point, a fraction of the 100,000 public schools in the United States, according to tracking by Burbio, a data firm. The peak was last Wednesday, when 3,666 schools were disrupted. That was down to about 2,700 on Monday and Tuesday, Burbio found.
Across the country, teachers have voiced concern about in-person school, but their labor unions have mostly gone along with district officials who have worked to keep schools open, closing individual campuses when coronavirus rates soared or staffing was too thin to operate.
Schools are in session in New York City, the largest district in the United States, and began Tuesday in Los Angeles, the No. 2 district, despite concerns about both teacher and student absences. According to a Los Angeles Times tracker, the district picked up more than 52,000 active coronavirus cases through its testing process out of more than 400,000 students. Of those cases, there was one linked to spread at a school.
In San Francisco, the teachers union has pushed the city schools to adopt a stronger testing program. The district provides tests for staff who are unvaccinated and for staff and students showing symptoms, but it does not conduct routine screening tests and did not require a negative test to return to school.
“It’s unconscionable to me how anyone isn’t involved promoting the safest possible standards for schools right now. There should be no reason not to test students,” said Cassondra Curiel, president of the United Educators of San Francisco.
Despite this divide, though, the union has not pushed for a return to remote education.
“I taught for a year and a half through remote learning personally. I stood in my apartment and taught from my kitchen,” Curiel said. “Educators know it’s not the best case scenario. We know people are at school so we’re trying to make sure what is happening at school is safe.”
In New York, the school opening has been rocky, but it has unfolded with the support of the United Federation of Teachers. “I was doing CNN the other day and they kept asking about the fight. We’re not fighting,” said Michael Mulgrew, president of the union.
Still, some within the union disagree.
“I feel we should be remote until every single person who goes to school is tested,” said Lydia Howrilka, a history and government teacher in New York who is part of the UFT Solidarity faction within the union. “I feel like we’ve been abandoned by everybody.”
Some students around the country, too, have pushed for virtual school. Petitions have launched in Boston, Oakland and Montgomery County, but so far districts have stuck with their plans to continue in person. A comment on Reddit from a New York City high school student describing a chaotic day of missing teachers, close contact with students who tested positive for the coronavirus and scant learning drew some 1,400 responses.
On Tuesday, hundreds of students walked out of Brooklyn Technical High School in support of a remote option.
Chicago’s new agreement will set forth criteria for closing schools with outbreaks, provide KN95 masks for educators and students, and allow the option to take an unpaid leave of absence if an employee’s medical condition puts them at higher risk of severe illness from covid-19. Last week, the union refused to teach in person, saying they wanted a return to remote learning. The school system responded by canceling classes, making Chicago one of a few U.S. cities without in-person classes after winter break.
“Someone asked who won and who lost,” Lightfoot told reporters. “No one wins when our students are out of a place where they can learn the best and where they’re safest.”
Nearly two-thirds of the teachers union’s House of Delegates voted to return to schools, said Jesse Sharkey, the union president. The decision will be subject to ratification by the rest of the union’s 25,000 members.
One major complaint from teachers was that the city had not set up a system to effectively test students for the virus before they returned to buildings. Other communities, including D.C., have staged effective “test-to-return” programs, and in Chicago, the district encouraged students to take coronavirus tests near the end of the winter break, but thousands of those tests were deemed invalid. Some samples were labeled unsatisfactory after delayed deliveries to labs because of weather and holiday traffic.
The standoff in Chicago was reminiscent of last school year’s battles between teachers unions, which saw in-person school as too dangerous, and school systems, which were trying to reopen buildings.
Still, many districts have struggled to cover classes for absent teachers, and some have seen large numbers of students out after testing positive or being exposed to the virus.
Last week, some schools shifted to remote learning because of high coronavirus numbers, others delayed the start of school to allow for testing of students before they returned from winter break, and still others were interrupted by a snowstorm. But no other significant district saw the sort of acrimony or standoff that unfolded in Chicago.