Chicago teachers back keeping kids remote until Jan. 18

CHICAGO (AP) — Closed-door negotiations resumed Saturday to resolve a standoff between Chicago school officials and the city’s teachers union over COVID-19 precautions that canceled three days of classes this week, while the union went public with its latest proposal to keep kids and teachers online until mid-January.

Under the package, teachers and their students would resume remote instruction Wednesday but wouldn’t return to classrooms until Jan. 18. The union softened its demand for broader mandatory testing, instead proposing a random screening program that students could opt out of.

The Chicago Teachers Union, which voted this week to revert to online instruction, told teachers not to show up to schools starting Wednesday while talks took place. The move just two days after students returned from winter break prompted district officials to cancel classes in the roughly 350,000-student district for three days, and many principals have warned parents they are unlikely to be able to hold classes on Monday.

Representatives for the district and Mayor Lori Lightfoot did not immediately respond Saturday to requests for comment on the union’s proposal.

But both Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez and Lightfoot have maintained that moving the entire district to remote instruction is a nonstarter, preferring to reserve that step in response to infections within an individual school.

The union’s proposal maintained a trigger to end in-person instruction if COVID-19 rates within the city increase at certain levels.

“We need to get a deal done absolutely,” Lightfoot said in an interview with WGN-TV on Friday afternoon, prior to the release of the latest union proposal. “But we’ve got to get one that is fair, that is reasonable and that covers the entire school year because I’m not going to go back to the table again and again and again and say ‘Pretty please’ to the (Chicago Teachers Union) leadership to get our kids back in school.”

Lightfoot also favors an opt-in testing program contrary to the union’s stance, saying parents should be the ones making that decision for their children. Lightfoot said in the interview that negotiators made progress this week, without providing more detail.

Other sticking points include metrics to trigger individual school closures.

School districts nationwide have confronted the same issues, with most opting to stay open while ramping up virus testing and tweaking protocols in response to the shifting pandemic. But a growing number of U.S. districts, including some large school systems, have gone back to remote learning as infections soar and sideline staff members.

The union has blasted the district for not doing enough, like botching a testing program and maintaining unreliable data on infections in schools. They’ve sought demands similar to a safety agreement put in place last year after a fierce debate. However, the district says the pandemic is different now and requires a different response, particularly since 91% of school staff is vaccinated.

Attendance was low in schools earlier this week, with thousands of students in quarantine or opting to stay home to avoid exposure.

Still, many parents had to scramble to again make last-minute arrangements for their children. Others agreed that being out of school was riskier than being in classrooms where masks and social distancing are used.

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Associated Press writer Sophia Tareen contributed to this report.

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Follow Sophia Tareen on Twitter: https://twitter.com/sophiatareen.

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