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Live updates: Omicron Variant in Chicago

As Chicago students resume class, teachers vote on a deal many say falls short

Martha Rodea and her husband drop off their kids at McAuliffe Elementary
Martha Rodea and her husband drop off their kids at McAuliffe Elementary on Chicago's Near Northwest Side Wednesday morning. Susie An / WBEZ

Chicago Public Schools classes resumed for 272,000 students Wednesday morning after classes were canceled for five days. Teachers had until 4 pm. to vote whether to approve the school safety agreement reached with the school district.

Many students said they were excited to be back, but the mood was far from celebratory as the omicron surge continues. Many teachers and parents argue the COVID-19 safety deal the Chicago Teachers Union and the school district reached doesn’t offer enough protections.

At some schools, students and parents said little instruction was taking place because of staff absences. At Taft High School on the far Northwest Side, junior Emma Pakieser asked her mother to pick her up after spending much of the morning in the auditorium after class after class had no teacher or substitute.

Emma said she didn’t feel safe in an auditorium with dozens of other students, many of whom didn’t have quality masks and pulled down their masks to talk to friends. She said the school handed out N95-type masks at the beginning of the day, but many kids were still wearing lower quality ones.

Her mother, Sean Pakieser, said it’s better to keep students home if there is no learning happening and safety protocols aren’t followed. Her daughter was able to log into some classes from home. She says the debate has gone beyond school safety.

“It’s not even a fight about ‘is it safe or not’ ” Pakieser said. “It is: Are the schools actually able to function? This is not a functional school if students are locked together into a crowded auditorium.”

Chicago Public Schools said 82% of teachers reported to Taft on Wednesday. Overall, nearly 89% of teachers reported to work. Student attendance was still being calculated. It was low on Jan. 3 and 4, the first days after winter break, at 66% and 72% respectively. CPS’ COVID tracker shows that 9,200 students and 2,200 adults were in quarantine as of Tuesday.

CPS said in some cases in high schools when there isn’t a substitute, students can be moved to an auditorium and the majority are supposed to be logged into remote classes. CPS says its facing a national substitute shortage and is offering incentives to hire more. It says it’s added 455 since the start of the school year.

The school district said it did not move any schools to school-wide remote learning on Wednesday, but some schools had multiple classrooms that were flipped to remote temporarily.

The school safety agreement teachers voted on Wednesday needs a simple majority of CTU members to pass. If it fails, the union’s governing body, which meets at 4:30 p.m., could vote to restart the labor action, which was set to expire on Jan. 18. Talks with the school district would resume.

CPS’ restart comes as the state on Tuesday shortened the recommended quarantine time for students and teachers from 10 to five days. This follows a change in CDC’s guidelines on Jan. 6.

The Illinois Department of Public Health and the State Board of Education said students and employees with COVID-19 should stay home for a minimum of five days and wear a mask around others for another five days. Returning is only allowed if students are fever free or asymptomatic. This guidance affects both public and private schools.

The new guidance also says if an adult 18 or older is a close contact of someone who has COVID-19 and hasn’t received a booster shot when they’re eligible, they must quarantine for five days or participate in a test-to-stay program.

Teacher union leaders told the Chicago Tribune they have serious concerns about the guidance, saying it is impossible to ensure students wear masks consistently and ensure all safety mitigations are followed.

In Chicago, parent Marth Rodea is worried about the safety measures at her children’s school. She said her daughters were signed up for weekly testing but it only happened once every other week.

She says she’s been standing with teachers in their call for a temporary shift to remote learning.

“CPS should definitely help out their teachers,” Rodea said as she dropped off her three young children at McAuliffe Elementary on the Near Northwest Side. “At the end, they’re the ones on the front line and they should have a say.”

Still, she sent her three daughters — in pre-K, kindergarten and third grade — to school because they’re all vaccinated and they tested negative so she believes they won’t spread the virus.

Rodea said she and her husband work but were lucky enough to have child care during the five days school was canceled. She said her girls were happy to be returning to class.