Democratic Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot appears to have reached the end of her rope with the Chicago Teachers Union and their refusal to negotiate a return to in-person learning.
Like many teachers unions throughout the country that have rejected reopening efforts, CTU has demanded that teachers be allowed to continue educating students remotely. The union believes the risk of spreading COVID-19 is too high, and schools need to remain shuttered for teacher and student safety.
In a reversal of her position from last spring on school lockdowns, Lightfoot called out CTU during a news conference on Thursday for refusing to reopen Chicago Public Schools, pointing to the harm the decision has caused students.
“[W]e are ready to welcome our students back,” Lightfoot said. “Frankly, they’ve been ready for some time. All we need now is the CTU leadership to get serious and meet us at the finish line.”
“We’ve extended ourselves beyond measure,” the mayor said. “We need our kids back in school. We need our parents to have that option. It should not be that CPS parents, of all the schools in our city, are the only ones who don’t have the option for in-person learning. It cannot be so that a public school system denies parents that right.”
Lightfoot also noted that, as a result of school closures, students have faced “failing grades, depression, isolation and so much more.” She then called on CTU to immediately move forward with a deal, adding that “our children cannot afford to wait any longer.”
During a July telebriefing, Dr. Robert Redfield, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warned that there would be “substantial public health negative consequences for children not being in school.”
Indeed, a CDC report conducted between Jan. 1 and Oct. 17 of 2020 appeared to affirm Redfield’s warning.
From early April to October, the number of mental health-related visits for children aged 5 to 11 and 12 to 17 had increased by 24 percent and 31 percent respectively compared to what they were in 2019.
Despite CTU’s claims that in-person learning is dangerous, the CDC found scant evidence of COVID-19 transmission in schools, so long as proper safety measures are employed.
In her Thursday news conference, Lightfoot said CPS has already invested $100 million in creating safe classrooms. According to the Chicago Tribune, these mitigation efforts include ventilation, face coverings and health screenings — resources that should be sufficient enough to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmissions.
Still, CTU has resisted reopening efforts, claiming that all teachers need to be vaccinated before they’ll allow children to receive an in-person education. But the CDC has refuted this talking point from the teachers union as well.
“I also want to be clear that there is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen and that that safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated in order to reopen safely,” said CDC director Rochelle Walensky during a Jan. 27 news briefing.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki attempted to cover for the teachers unions on Feb. 4, saying that Walensky was only speaking on the subject from her “personal capacity.” However, the idea that the CDC director would issue an opinion that contradicts her agency’s official views is hard to believe.
If Walensky’s assessment is that vaccinations for teachers are not required before students can return to in-person learning, then that assessment is coming directly from a public health expert.
Teachers unions are running out of excuses, and state leaders cannot back down for the students’ sake.
As the Associated Press reported, it seems that Lightfoot and CTU managed to reach a “preliminary agreement” on Sunday. The city agreed to vaccinate 1,500 CPS teachers and staff, and students could soon be phased back into the classroom by grade.
While the plan could allow some students to return to the classroom by Thursday, the deal still requires approval from CTU. The union is reportedly still reviewing the offer, which means Lightfoot’s fight to reopen CPS may not be over yet.
Lightfoot sacrificed businesses and at least a year of people’s lives to slow the spread of COVID-19. The same disregard for people’s well-being should not be inflicted on students by CTU.
If Lightfoot wants to work toward restoring normalcy to the city, then she must continue to press CTU to work with her to reopen schools safely.
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