CHICAGO — With coronavirus cases in Chicago soaring to their highest levels of the pandemic, public school students returned to classrooms on Monday. Whether they will still be there at midweek remains an open question.
Members of the Chicago Teachers Union were preparing to vote on whether to work remotely starting on Wednesday, with or without the district’s blessing. The union, which has repeatedly clashed with Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration, had demanded that every student be tested for the virus before returning from winter break, a step the district did not take.
At a news conference on Monday, the union’s vice president, Stacy Davis Gates, expressed her anger at having “to continuously fight for the basic necessities, the basic mitigations.”
Instead of universal testing, the district gave tens of thousands of students optional take-home tests before winter break. On Monday, it became clear that the testing effort to ensure a safe reopening had largely failed. Of 35,590 tests recorded by the district in the week ending Saturday, 24,843 had invalid results. Among the minority of tests that did produce results, 18 percent were positive.
A district official said test vendors were looking into the reasons for the inconclusive results.
Even as cases and hospitalizations around Chicago have risen, school leaders have been steadfast in their belief that classrooms should stay open. Pedro Martinez, the district’s chief executive, said in an interview last week that he could not support closing all schools at a time when the rest of the city remained open for business. Instead, Mr. Martinez said it made more sense to make decisions about reverting to online teaching on a classroom-by-classroom basis as outbreaks emerged.
Chicago Public Schools officials said on Monday that they were concerned about the union’s planned vote on switching to online instruction. If union members decided to pause in-person teaching, it was not clear whether the district would authorize that remote instruction or lock educators out.
The dispute has left parents — both those who want their students in the classroom, and those who would have preferred to start the semester online — with little clarity on how the school year will unfold.
“All of that uncertainty and chaos just really makes everything harder,” said Cassie Creswell, who leads a state-level education advocacy group in Illinois and who has a daughter at a public high school in Chicago. Ms. Creswell said she would have preferred that the district start the semester online.
Ismael El-Amin, who has children at two Chicago schools, including one where he serves on the Local School Council, said his family was “definitely in a reactive mode” as he waited to see what disruptions might emerge. Mr. El-Amin said his family had skipped large Christmas and New Year’s celebrations with family in order to limit potential exposure to the virus.
Mr. El-Amin said he had become more worried about how the constant upheaval might affect his daughters, who are vaccinated.
“That fear is kind of transformed from the medical worst-case scenario to, this is going to be another month, another semester where my daughter’s going to miss out on consistent education, getting to know her friends, getting to know her teachers,” Mr. El-Amin said.