CHICAGO (CBS) — After the Chicago Teachers Union told Chicago Public Schools its members are not ready to return to the classroom because of COVID concerns, CPS said children should stay home Wednesday.

In a letter to CPS families, CPS Chief Executive Officer Dr. Janice Jackson said the district had no choice but to make the decision, affecting thousands of students.

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“Yesterday evening, Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) leadership notified its members that beginning tomorrow, Wednesday, Jan. 27, it will direct pre-k and cluster classroom teachers who have been safely teaching in-person since the beginning of the month to stay home. As a result, the district has no choice but to ask parents to keep your children home tomorrow,” Jackson said. “For the past three weeks, thousands of CPS students have been safely learning in person, and the union’s action will prevent these students from receiving the classroom support their parents needed and chose.”

The standoff between CPS and CTU has been going for weeks, with teachers instructing from laptops while outside. Recently, CPS cut off email and other online tools for teachers who refused to return to their classrooms. CPS has long stated the classrooms have COVID safety protocols in place.

“While we are greatly concerned for our youngest and highest-need students, who are suddenly without a safe, in-person learning option, we are continuing to make all possible efforts to reach an agreement that addresses the union’s priorities and provides families a much-needed resolution,” Jackson said. “CPS today provided union leadership with an updated comprehensive proposal, which addresses most of the union’s remaining concerns and builds on the progress that has been made over several weeks of discussion.”

K-8 students are scheduled to come back to the classroom on Feb. 1.

CTU rank-and-file teachers have voted to defy an order from Chicago Public Schools to return to in-person instruction.

“Our top priority remains providing all students the safe instruction that is right for them at this time — whether they want to learn in person or at home — and our engagement with the union remains ongoing in an effort to reach an agreement,” Jackson said in the release. “But as it stands, union leadership has directed pre-k and cluster staff not to report to duty on Wednesday. Without assurance that there is adequate teaching staff for in-person learning, we must prioritize student safety and ask that parents keep their children home for remote learning tomorrow. We remain committed to reaching an agreement that protects the February 1st return to in-person learning for K-8 students, and we will be in touch with further updates as this situation develops.”

At a news conference early Tuesday evening, Mayor Lori Lightfoot expressed “great disappointment” in the fact that no agreement has been reached with the union and that pre-K and special education students who were already back in class would have to stay home the following day.

The mayor insisted that the city has used the same “data-driven, equity-focused” approach to handling the education system as with any other aspect of the pandemic – and she said schools are safe to open despite the union’s concern that they are not.

Mayor Lightfoot also said her office and CPS have had “constant and ongoing agreement” with the CTU, having met with the union more than 60 times since June and virtually each and every day over the past two weeks.

She said plans have been put in place for a variety of public health measures in schools – including extended health screenings, hand sanitizer, personal protective equipment, social distancing, enhanced ventilation upgrades including HEPA filters in every classroom in office, contact tracing, and a vaccination plan for teachers and staff.

“I will tell you that I’m deeply disappointed that after all this time, all these sessions… no agreement has been reached,” the mayor said.

She said the CTU has not signed off on an agreement despite the fact that there have been three weeks of daily evidence that schools are safe – given that pre-K and special education cluster students returned to in-person learning three weeks ago.

“We will stay at the bargaining table and keep working, because we always put our children first. There is no question that students are persevering. But there is also no question that there is no substitute for in-person learning,” Mayor Lightfoot said.

The mayor said the lack of in-person learning is having serious consequences.

“Too many of our children – particularly our Black and Brown kids – are falling behind,” she said, adding that she fears for their future.

At the news conference with Mayor Lightfoot, Jackson emphasized that CPS already has a plan in place to ramp up COVID-19 testing, and to create a framework under which students could return to remote learning in the event of an uptick in coronavirus cases.

She added that private and parochial schools have been operational since the fall with fewer cases among students than those not in class in person. The mayor and Jackson also noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said schools can operate safely even if COVID-19 cases are high.

“There is no good reason why we shouldn’t have an agreement at this time right now,” Jackson said.

Tuesday morning, parents from the Far South Side held a virtual meeting with Jackson to talk about plans to return to the classroom. Some parents support going back to school, but others feel it’s too soon.

“Our family has had success with remote learning. We feel that schools are not yet safe. We feel that there’s a third wave of the pandemic approaching,” said Kenyatta Land, the father of a student at Kellogg Elementary School.

“My current eighth grader has truly been stunted with his growth, I do believe,” CPS parent Ashanti Brooks said.

The Chicago Teachers Union was not pleased with the mayor’s news conference, as evidenced by a tweet soon afterward.

“Never mind the gaslighting. Let’s get an agreement,” the union tweeted.

The union later added in tweets: “CPS’ own data shows that our schools are not yet safe. Only 19 percent of students eligible to return have returned. The CDC guidelines also said to keep restaurants and bars closed. Teachers, clinicians, PSRPs, librarians, nurses and all school workers want to work. Safely.”

The union tweeted further: “Of those ‘60’ bargaining sessions that are often mentioned, there has been a CPS decision-maker at the table just twice. The CPS CEO has never been in attendance.

“We are seeking a health metric based on CDC guidance; a phased reopening; access to vaccinations for educators; and enforceable safety standards in school buildings, which have struggled to meet even basic needs for PPE, adequate ventilation and clean facilities,” the CTU tweeted. “We have no mutually agreed upon metric on COVID-19 community transmission rates for reopening schools, while CPS defies the CDC health metric for reopening schools with lower risk.”

Further, the union tweeted: “Parents have overwhelmingly rejected in-person learning under current conditions (19 percent of students returning). There are many options we’ve proposed to staff classrooms, where children can return without putting every single member of school communities at increased risk.”

According to a news release from the Chicago Teachers Union, it’s calling for mediation “to broker a safe path to returning to schools.”

The CTU added “(CTU) is seeking a health metric based on CDC guidance, a phased reopening, access to vaccinations for educators, and enforceable safety standards in school buildings, which have struggled to meet even basic needs for PPE, adequate ventilation and clean facilities.

“As of today, a majority of Chicago’s Public Schools fall outside of the newly released Center for Disease Control guidelines. Currently, Chicago’s schools lack access to adequate testing and tracing programs, proper PPE, necessary room ventilation and sanitization, and priority vaccination of educators and school support staff.”

“If solving the problem of how to reopen school buildings while ensuring the safety of educators, staff and students in the middle of a pandemic was easy, then CPS and CTU would have already done it,” said American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. “That’s why appointing a mediator is the right move, right now.”

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