CHICAGO — Teachers in the nation’s third-largest school district voted Tuesday to switch to remote learning, and city leaders reacted by canceling classes for most of the district’s 330,000 students.
The Chicago Teachers Union voted late Tuesday to pause in-person learning and work remotely until Jan. 18, or until COVID-19 cases fall below a particular threshold. The union, which has roughly 25,000 members, is also demanding the district require negative tests from students and staff before returning to school.
“This decision was made with a heavy heart and a singular focus on student and community safety,” the union said in a statement late Tuesday night.
It was not immediately clear how many teachers would show up in person Wednesday. Over the course of four hours late Tuesday, 73% of the union’s members voted in favor of shifting to remote learning.
In a press conference late Tuesday night, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the vote constituted an “illegal work action,” and Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez described the action as a “walkout.” Teachers who do not show up will not be paid, Lightfoot said.
School buildings will be open Wednesday and will provide essential services, such as meals and COVID-19 testing, Martinez said. It was not immediately clear if virtual classes would resume.
Chicago has reported record numbers of COVID-19 cases in recent days, and hospitalizations this week are up 22% from the week prior, according to city data.
More than 2,000 adults and nearly 8,000 students were quarantining or isolating Tuesday, according to school district data. Martinez said schools remain safe for students and staff and “rarely saw any instances of any major transmission” during the fall session.
Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, said she was “concerned” about the surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations in Chicago, driven largely by unvaccinated patients. But schools should be “first to open, last to close,” Arwady said.
“I’m disappointed that we’re having this conversation again because this is one that has been answered,” Arwady said.
Lightfoot said individual school communities were experiencing the surge differently, largely based on vaccination rates, and that the district’s plan allows schools and classrooms to respond to outbreaks as needed. She said a shift back to virtual learning would disproportionately affect children of color.
“What we should not be doing is allowing CTU leadership to shut down an entire school system,” Lightfoot said.
Lightfoot said she hoped and expected teachers to show up Wednesday. Union representatives were expected to hold a press conference Wednesday morning at 7 a.m. CT.
Several school districts have extended winter breaks due to the omicron surge, and others have canceled classes or switched to remote learning.