CHICAGO. To understand the crisis that closed Chicago public schools this week, it’s helpful to know a key ingredient: The Democrat mayor and one of the city’s most powerful working groups hate each other.
The increasingly toxic relationship between the Chicago Teachers Union and Mayor Laurie Lightfoot has been waiting for an explosion for months, if not years. The spark turned out to be the Omicron variant.
“There are so many things that we could collaborate on,” Lightfoot said in an interview Wednesday about her most recent conflict with a union overwhelmingly voted in favor. late tuesday so as not to return to full-time study… “Instead, they chose an illegal unilateral action that plunges the entire system into chaos and makes us a laughing stock throughout the country.”
Chicago is the largest closed county in the country and the only major county closed due to a labor dispute.
It’s unclear if the move will inspire union educators elsewhere to follow suit, as they see their own members contracting a virus that has already caused minor blackouts. But many elected Democrats across the country, who supported the closure at the start of the pandemic, are pushing for K-12 schools to remain open during the Omicron surge – a change in stance that has sparked tensions with teachers’ unions, the party’s key constituency.
As of now, teacher unions in New York, Los Angeles, Washington, DC and Sacramento are not calling for school closures, as Chicago educators are doing. The Powerful California Teachers Association has released statement with Governor Gavin Newsom last month promised "keep our classes open" in a state where campuses have been closed due to the pandemic for longer than anywhere else in the country. Democratic leaders, from President Joe Biden to New York City Mayor Eric Adams, are focusing more on the social and academic challenges facing homeschoolers and acknowledging that parents lack the patience to return to online classes.
Tensions in Chicago are particularly painful for Lightfoot, a sharp-tongued reformer Democrat who pledged in 2019 to challenge the party’s political machine, which relies heavily on workgroups. She also does not tolerate pleasantries and appreciates the directness of her allies and critics.
When a request for public records showed how she regularly emailed her staff and critics last month, city voters and the political class barely blinked. Even the allies are used to the mayor’s tone. “The mayor and I have always had a frankly honest working relationship,” Alderman Brendan Reilly said then in an interview.
But for some of those who work or negotiate with her, Lightfoot’s outspokenness has made her relationship with CTU – a group that at times also annoyed her predecessor Ram Emanuel – unmanageable.
And during Wednesday night’s press conference, Lightfoot, the former attorney, did what the Chicagoans expected: she stuck it out.
“I will not let them take our children hostage,” she said of the teachers union. Her concern focuses on the many CPS students who come from underserved communities where Internet or computer access is not readily available, and whose families rely on two or three meals a day at school.
Teachers, who were scheduled to return to class on Wednesday, are concerned about safety following numerous reports of Covid testing failures following the holidays and photographs of FedEx boxes overflowing with test packages.
Union officials have accused the mayor of stagnation, which is keeping some 330,000 students in the city’s public schools out of their classrooms.
“The Lightfoot administration has been the enemy of public education here in Chicago,” CTU vice president Stacy Davis Gates said in an interview Wednesday.
But even some of Lightfoot’s most outspoken critics support her on keeping schools open.
“I don’t think CTU will give in to Lightfoot and in. Even if it gives them whatever they want,” said Chicago-based alderman Raymond Lopez, who chided the mayor on everything from public safety to emergency powers. “They have a mission to be obstructive to this administration in a way that makes me ashamed. I can recognize when she is doing something right and they refuse to do even that. ”
Ever since she convincingly elected her CTU candidate almost three years ago, Lightfoot has found herself at odds with the teachers union at every turn. There was a 14-day strike during her first year in office, followed by constant disagreements over how to keep students in school when the pandemic broke out in 2020.
The CTU and the Lightfoot administration have been in talks for several months, but nothing has been achieved.
“Anyone who thinks this teachers union is just a union has ignored it,” Lightfoot told POLITICO magazine. “They see themselves as a political movement or a political party, and this is the prism through which we must view their every action.”
And during her Wednesday night press conference, the mayor said teachers who don’t return to their classes on Friday won’t be paid.
“We will not pay you to leave your posts and your children at a time when they and their families need us most,” she said. “It won’t happen in my hours.”
Lightfoot said “hundreds of millions” of dollars were spent to make Chicago schools safe for students and school staff during the pandemic. Ventilation systems have been improved and schools have HEPA filters, masks and social distancing procedures, she said.
The teachers’ union insists that improvement is not enough. Gates said the city is holding back too much federal dollars – Chicago public schools have received about $ 2 billion in federal Covid aid funding – to be spent on schools.
“I can’t stress this enough: we have billions of dollars to help us cope with Covid, which we don’t see in our school communities,” Gates said. “We don’t see mass testing. We don’t see vaccination clinics, especially in the postcodes in this city that is suffering. “
CPS CEO Pedro Martinez admitted the city “agrees” that more needs to be done to strengthen testing for Covid. District officials said Wednesday night they should prioritize testing for symptomatic and unvaccinated students given limited supplies.
However, Lightfoot disagrees that tensions between her office and the teachers union have anything to do with politics or its leadership. After all, she’s not the first mayor of Chicago to argue with educators. During the reign of Emanuel there was also a teachers’ strike.
“Anyone who sits in this place, considering who the CTU is, will be in the same place as me. It’s not about personality. It’s about the ego, ”Lightfoot said.