Schooling in the time of Omicron
A settlement in Chicago but if you want peace, you're in the wrong city.
What was it all about, anyway?
(Updated) — The safety agreement passed by a slim majority, with nearly 56% of the Chicago Teachers Union voting yes. — WBEZ
Union officials wouldn’t say what negotiating point got them across the finish line, but CTU president Jesse Sharkey alluded to concerns about teachers not being paid during the work stoppage. “I told our members, it’s cold out in Chicago, we’re going without pay,” and teachers and students miss each other, he said. — IL Playbook
The same CTU leaders who signed off on the agreement Monday were complaining about it by Tuesday just as the union rank-and-file were preparing to vote on the deal. Were they actually encouraging angry and disappointed teachers to vote NO on the agreement they signed?
I’m both happy and nervous as hell that CPS kids and teachers are back in class after the apparent agreement between the Board and the CTU. I fully support the union’s oversight role in monitoring the agreed-upon safety measures; i.e., masking, vaxing, spacing, testing, ventilation, etc… but bewildered by the 5-day walkout.
Happy because I agree with the CDC, Health Director Dr. Allison Arwady, Dr. Fauci, and most doctors and scientists that, despite the Omnicron wildfire, children are safer, or at least better off, in schools with prescribed safety measures in place, than at home.
Arwady has made it clear that her agency is in “very strong” agreement with CPS and Lightfoot on avoiding a whole-district move to virtual learning. But the CTU leaders have been bashing Arwady for weeks, calling her a “liar” and “out of touch” and claiming that Lightfoot's plan for reopening schools was driven by "racism, sexism, and misogyny?"
I’m nervous as we all should be, knowing that many children and staff will continue to test positive whether they are in school or out. On each passing day, I’m hearing from at least two to three friends or relatives who’ve caught Covid. Yesterday, it was my teacher niece in New York, a good friend in Chicago, Ald. Emma Mitts, and Mayor Lightfoot herself. Hopefully, the fact that they all have been vaxed and boosted will keep their symptoms mild and help them all make speedy recoveries.
Today, I heard an FDA official predict that Omicron will infect half or more of the populations of Europe and the US.
As far as I can see, there were no winners and plenty of losers in the CTU/CPS standoff. Chief among the losers were the working families that had to scramble for last-minute work or child-care arrangements along with the thousands of teachers who lost 5 days with their students and likely some days of pay.
It could have been a lot worse. CTU leaders had threatened to keep teachers from returning until January 18th unless an agreement was reached. Thankfully, the agreement will bring some added safety measures to the schools, but teachers will return to work today under basically the same conditions that existed before the job action.
The CTU plan called for schools to remain shut with remote learning put in place for two weeks. But Mayor Lightfoot and CEO Pedro Martinez rejected the remote-learning plan and I think they were right to do so. But I will save my thoughts on the union and remote learning for another post.
CTU did win a few concessions. The new agreement includes escalated testing, calling for at least 10% of students in every school to be tested weekly and additional rapid tests—which have been hard to find lately—available at schools, as well as high-quality masks for staff and students.
CEO Martinez says the district will keep working with teachers to improve safety measures now that they are back in school. He says there are good pieces in this agreement that'll strengthen testing.
As I’m writing this CPS posted this announcement…
From what I am hearing from classroom teachers live and on social media, many feel that their lost time in the classroom was for little or naught. Either they were “sold out” by the leadership or the negotiations were handled poorly.
My feeling was that there was little of substance to be negotiated here and more heat than light in the public discourse. The give-and-take that happened Monday could have happened weeks or even months ago instead of being pushed to the brink once again.
The exchange of personal attacks during the negotiations sounded like a carry-over from the last mayoral election and a possible prelude to the upcoming one next February.
Some observers portrayed it simply as a spat between two Black women, union V.P. Stacy Davis Gates, and Mayor Lightfoot. Ugh!
Sharkey called the mayor “stupid” just as the agreement was about to be signed, and Gates called her a “kamikaze” “unfit to be mayor,” a moment after the deal was inked. Both comments demeaned the union and its two leaders, in my opinion, more than they did the mayor. To me, that was another signifier that this isn’t just about Omicron, kids, and schools, but also a prelude to the coming mayor’s race.
It’s not clear yet whether Gates will enter the race or who the union will back if she doesn’t. In the last election, the union supported County Board President and county Democratic Party chief Toni Preckwinkle, who was soundly defeated by Lightfoot.
I warned back in 2019, in the heat of the election campaign when the vitriol was heading over the top:
With election day only a few weeks away, and Lightfoot apparently pulling far ahead, internecine warfare has broken out among the progressives to such a degree it's going to be hard to put Humpty Dumpty back together again when the election madness is over.
I’m often wrong, but I wasn’t then.
President Joe Biden’s administration had been urging Mayor Lightfoot and the CTU to strike a deal to return children to classrooms as the high-profile dispute undercut his push to keep schools open across the nation. His own Democratic strategists are warning him that widespread school closures will cost them support, particularly among suburban voters.
So as the dust settles, here we are. Students and teachers are returning to school. Rank-and-file teachers have narrowly voted to end the walkout. The Democrats are taking a beating, and the battle to save public education in the pandemic era and beyond continues.
Mike Klonsky's Edu/Pol is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.