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Chicago's mayor has called off school as teachers demand more COVID-19 testing

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Public schools in Chicago were closed today because of a showdown between the mayor and the teachers union. The reason - COVID safety in school buildings. The Chicago Teachers Union approved a measure to go all remote until mid-January. And in response, Chicago Public Schools locked out teachers today, leaving children at home. From member station WBEZ, Sarah Karp reports.

SARAH KARP, BYLINE: The battle over school safety as COVID numbers surge came to a head just yesterday. That's when the union announced that teachers and staff would not be reporting in person. Mayor Lori Lightfoot then moved to shut them out altogether. Lightfoot says the union cannot make a unilateral decision on remote teaching, and she sees no reason why school staff should feel uncomfortable going into schools since more than 90% of staff are fully vaccinated.

LORI LIGHTFOOT: What I know from my own experience, what I know from talking to the public health experts, what I know in talking to our CEO is there is no basis in the data, the science or common sense for us to shut an entire system down.

KARP: But Jesse Sharkey, who heads the teachers union, disagrees. He says the majority of his members are scared to return.

JESSE SHARKEY: Right now, going into schools puts us at risk, puts our students and families at risk of contracting the coronavirus. That's a simple truth of the matter.

KARP: For Sharkey, it's not whether schools are safe, but whether the district itself can be trusted to put adequate safeguards in place. The union has long criticized the school district's COVID-testing programs, lobbying for more regular student testing. It also wants negative tests required before students can return to classrooms.

Parent Elizabeth Ortega (ph) also criticizes the district's handling of the situation. She says it has done a poor job alerting parents to possible risks. She says she and her sister-in-law only found out about positive cases in their children's classrooms long after they were exposed. It was then that her sister-in-law's entire family contracted COVID.

ELIZABTH ORTEGA: They didn't say anything. As soon as they find - found the kids that were positive with COVID, they waited until they were really sick.

KARP: In addition, an at-home testing program spearheaded by the district last month was widely criticized as being something of a debacle. Ortega was among parents who sent their children's test in on the required day only to learn it couldn't be analyzed on time. Of 150,000 tests given out, only about 20,000 families got results back.

ORTEGA: And I think that we need to do remote learning for now, at least until the numbers are low, because we cannot, like, trust CPS no more with this.

KARP: But some parents are pushing to have their children back in the classroom. Leonore Colmenke (ph) is home today with her three school-aged boys. She says her youngest is a 5-year-old with special needs. She says when the school district was fully remote, he missed out on services like speech and physical therapy.

LEONORE COLMENKE: And I feel like - I'm just like, oh, my gosh, here we go again, you know? Are - is he going to not get the supports that he need (ph)?

KARP: She's especially frustrated that students returned to school for two days this week and now are at home with no school computers and no remote-learning opportunities. She's angry both with the teachers union and the school district.

COLMENKE: It's a hot mess. Come on, guys. Get it together. You know, you should have prepared - you know, had a Plan B for like - how can it not be in the scenario of cases going up? Like, that should have been a Plan B.

KARP: As negotiations continue, parents are struggling with child care, and students are stuck at home.

For NPR News, this is Sarah Karp in Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.