Just the other day, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said during an interview with CNBC that her goal is to "never shut down again", in reference to a lockdown that economically devastated small business owners. During this interview, Lightfoot insisted that schools weren't a locus of the spread, which of course is in line with the CDC's own guidance.
"Our schools are not the source of significant spread. The issue is community spread. But we need to keep our kids in schools, which is what we’re going to do in Chicago," she said, adding that:
...she “will not allow” the union “to take our children hostage.”
She took issue with the union demanding that all educators, students, and volunteers test negative for COVID-19 before returning to school.
“We are not going to rob parents of their right and their obligation to tell us if they want testing or not on their children. It’s not going to happen. It’s morally wrong,” Lightfoot said.
Yet, two days later, millions of parents in the city of Chicago are scrambling Thursday morning as the city's public schools have once again been shut down by a teacher's union that's determined to strike until they get more tests for members who are worried about "safety", despite the fact that even omicron hasn't been shown to spread in schools and among children.
As the NYT explains, nowhere in the US is the situation more "acrimonious and unpredictable" than in Chicago. The city retaliated to the Teachers' Union vote by calling off school altogether, refusing the teachers' call for remote instruction. The enmity between the teacher's union and city hall is something that's been years in the making, according to the NYT. And with violence surging in the city's streets following its most murderous year in decades, there's never been a time where leaving children unsupervised could put them more at risk.
One city activist put things perfectly: the city is now in an "untenable situation."
"If they are in class and Covid is rampaging, that’s a problem. If they are not there and out on the streets, that’s a problem," said Tamar Manasseh, who leads an anti-violence group in the city, and who said she was looking into ways to help children with nowhere to go during the day. "This has put us in an untenable situation."
To get a better picture of the situation that Chicago parents are dealing with: parents weren't informed about the cancellation of school starting Wednesday until 2300 Chicago Time on Tuesday night.
The decision impacts the more than 300K schoolchildren in Chicago, and it's unclear when classes will resume. Union leaders insist that their members are only asking for basic safety precautions like regular testing for students and proper protocols for quarantining and shutting down schools experiencing an outbreak.
Their attacks on Mayor Lightfoot have grown surprisingly personal, with one top official complaining to a NYT reporter that Lightfoot doesn't "understand partnership and collaboration."
Jesse Sharkey, the union president, said an increase of cases in the school system and the onslaught of Omicron, which causes milder illness than other variants but frequent breakthrough infections, had heightened members’ concern. He called for testing all students before classrooms reopened, as well as stepped-up surveillance testing after that. The district had instituted an optional testing plan over winter break, but most of the 150,000 or so mail-in P.C.R. tests given to students were never returned; of the ones that were, a majority produced invalid results.
"If you want to get us back into the schools quicker, provide testing,” he said.
Mr. Sharkey and Stacy Davis Gates, the union’s vice president, also criticized the mayor for her approach to negotiations and for her repeated public criticisms of the union. Members of Ms. Lightfoot’s administration have defended the school system’s efforts to make classrooms safe and have emphasized that children rarely face severe outcomes from Covid-19.
"The mayor wants to fight when we should be working,” Ms. Davis Gates said. “She’s fighting us instead of the virus. I don’t understand it."
She said the mayor’s “her-way-or-the-highway” leadership style had made matters worse.
"The mayor, bless her heart, she doesn’t understand partnership and collaboration,” Ms. Davis Gates said.
Some activists are blaming Mayor Lightfoot, saying the decision to close schools was made in response to a "political beef".
But in Chicago, some said they did not believe that the district had adequately adjusted to the incursion of Omicron. Ja'Mal Green, an activist and former mayoral candidate who lives on the South Side, said he held his son out of kindergarten this week because he did not think the district had adequate virus precautions.
Mr. Green praised the union’s actions, and said he worried about the convergence of the pandemic, street violence and educational disruption in the city.
"The mayor really has a political beef with the union and doesn’t want to come to any type of compromise because she wants to beat them over the head for the strikes and the things that have happened in the past," said Mr. Green, who has frequently criticized Ms. Lightfoot.
One would think that failing to keep the schools open is a basic failure for a mayor.
The mayor has received backing from the White House, which said earlier Wednesday that all schools should remain open, including in Chicago, but the union has thus far stood firm on its demands.