CHICAGO — Parents across Chicago raced to find child care on Wednesday morning after jarring news: Classes in the nation’s third-largest public school district were canceled. The teachers’ union and Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration had failed to agree on how to keep schools open during an Omicron-fueled virus surge.
Across the country, the wildly contagious Omicron variant has infected millions and complicated the return to classrooms and workplaces. But nowhere has returning to school been more acrimonious and unpredictable than in Chicago, where, after two days back in classrooms following winter break, 73 percent of teachers voted to stop reporting to work. The city responded by calling off school altogether, refusing the teachers’ call for remote instruction. With no deal reached by Wednesday evening, district officials said classes would be canceled again on Thursday.
The abrupt pause in the academic calendar, rooted in years of enmity between the Chicago Teachers Union and City Hall, jumbled plans for hundreds of thousands of students and posed another major test for Ms. Lightfoot, a Democrat whose tenure has been marked by labor strife, the pandemic and a surge in homicides.
“If they are in class and Covid is rampaging, that’s a problem. If they are not there and out on the streets, that’s a problem,” said Tamar Manasseh, who leads an anti-violence group in the city, and who said she was looking into ways to help children with nowhere to go during the day. “This has put us in an untenable situation.”
Ms. Lightfoot, whose disagreements with the Chicago Teachers Union date back to a strike in the early months of her term, said in an interview that the two sides remained far apart as negotiations continued. Ms. Lightfoot said she intended to take legal action against the union, perhaps in a court filing or a complaint to a state labor board. The school district opened buildings for meal distribution on Wednesday and published a list of places where parents could get emergency child care.
“The consequences of the union acting like this time and time again are profound,” Ms. Lightfoot said. She added, “You think about the consequences for the families to be faced with the hostage choice of either going to work or taking care of their kids and home-schooling — no parent should be put in that position.”
Crises have been accumulating in Chicago. Coronavirus cases have surged to record levels. The Chicago Police Department announced over the weekend that about 800 people had been murdered in 2021, more than in any recent year. Then, after 11 p.m. on Tuesday, parents of more than 300,000 schoolchildren were told there would be no classes on Wednesday, and perhaps for much longer.
Jesse Sharkey, the union president, said an increase of cases in the school system and the onslaught of Omicron, which causes milder illness than other variants but frequent breakthrough infections, had heightened members’ concern. He called for testing all students before classrooms reopened, as well as stepped-up surveillance testing after that. The district had instituted an optional testing plan over winter break, but most of the 150,000 or so mail-in P.C.R. tests given to students were never returned; of the ones that were, a majority produced invalid results.
“If you want to get us back into the schools quicker, provide testing,” he said.
Mr. Sharkey and Stacy Davis Gates, the union’s vice president, also criticized the mayor for her approach to negotiations and for her repeated public criticisms of the union. Members of Ms. Lightfoot’s administration have defended the school system’s efforts to make classrooms safe and have emphasized that children rarely face severe outcomes from Covid-19.
“The mayor wants to fight when we should be working,” Ms. Davis Gates said. “She’s fighting us instead of the virus. I don’t understand it.”
She said the mayor’s “her-way-or-the-highway” leadership style had made matters worse. “The mayor, bless her heart, she doesn’t understand partnership and collaboration,” Ms. Davis Gates said.
The standoff has left parents like Tonya Patterson with few good options. Ms. Patterson, a bank teller, was among a handful of parents who dropped a child off at Ellington Elementary on the city’s West Side, where employees who were not part of the teachers’ job action were providing emergency child care.
Ms. Patterson faulted both sides for the discord. By the time she learned classes were canceled, she said it was too late to arrange for a babysitter.
“I understand they want to be safe, but I have to work,” Ms. Patterson said. “I don’t understand why they are so special.”
Still, many people in the city expressed concern about children attending school in person at a time when coronavirus cases are continuing to spike, and when hospitalizations have also increased. Districts in Milwaukee, Atlanta and Cleveland, among other cities, have switched to remote instruction in the face of rising cases. Most large districts, including in New York and Miami, have continued in-person teaching. No other city has seen a public labor dispute on the scale of Chicago.
At a West Side grocery store on Wednesday morning, Karen Washington had ventured out in the frigid weather with her 6-year-old granddaughter, a first grader, because the girl’s parents were working. Ms. Washington said she supported the teachers’ decision.
“Kids don’t know how to social distance,” Ms. Washington said. “They play and get close and take off their masks.”
Union members have asked for better masks, more testing and clearer rules for closing schools with outbreaks.
Still, city officials have insisted that schools are safe, and that a districtwide shutdown only harmed struggling families. Pedro Martinez, the district’s chief executive, suggested on Tuesday that misinformation was causing most of the anxiety. Ms. Lightfoot said the union’s position also overlooked the academic and social challenges many children faced when not in school.
“Are they going to put up the money to pay for the tutors to deal with the challenges that our students are facing?” Ms. Lightfoot said. “Are they going to put forth the effort to help with the social-emotional consequences of our kids being disconnected from their social network, from extracurricular activity and all of the cascading consequences?
Relations between the Chicago Teachers Union and City Hall have been extraordinarily tense for a decade, stretching across the tenures of Ms. Lightfoot and her predecessor, Rahm Emanuel. In 2019, months before the pandemic, teachers went on strike for 11 days and extracted concessions from Ms. Lightfoot on pay, class sizes and support staff. A year ago, when schools first returned to in-person instruction, the city and union engaged in weeks of tense negotiations.
Ms. Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor who had never held elective office, won all 50 of the city’s wards in 2019. She became the first Black woman to lead the nation’s third-largest city after campaigning as an outsider on promises to invest in neighborhoods and root out corruption. But much of her agenda was quickly overshadowed by the pandemic and struggles with public employee unions, including the Fraternal Order of Police, which fought her on a requirement to report vaccination status, and the teachers’ union, with which she has repeatedly clashed.
The Chicago Teachers Union is uniquely powerful and active in local politics, calling for more investment in schools and regularly weighing in on racial justice and policing issues.
“At the end of the day, we have a two-party system in Chicago: We have the regular Democratic Party, the Republican Party is almost nonexistent, then we have the Chicago Teachers Union,” said Paul Vallas, who led Chicago Public Schools in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2019.
Mr. Vallas, a Democrat who supports expanding charter schools, urged Ms. Lightfoot not to give into the union’s requests. He said he worried about the long-term consequences of the work stoppages and labor disputes.
“They keep on making demands, she keeps on satisfying their demands, and then they make more demands,” Mr. Vallas said.
A vast majority of districts in the country remain open, and President Biden said this week that schools should use leftover federal funds from last year’s stimulus package to continue in-person instruction despite the rise of the Omicron variant.
“He wants schools to be open,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said on Wednesday when asked about the dispute in Chicago. “We know they can open safely and we’re here to help make that happen.” She added, “This includes schools everywhere, including in Chicago.”
But in Chicago, some said they did not believe that the district had adequately adjusted to the incursion of Omicron. Ja’Mal Green, an activist and former mayoral candidate who lives on the South Side, said he held his son out of kindergarten this week because he did not think the district had adequate virus precautions.
Mr. Green praised the union’s actions, and said he worried about the convergence of the pandemic, street violence and educational disruption in the city.
“The mayor really has a political beef with the union and doesn’t want to come to any type of compromise because she wants to beat them over the head for the strikes and the things that have happened in the past,” said Mr. Green, who has frequently criticized Ms. Lightfoot.
Alderman Daniel La Spata, who supports the union’s requests, said he had heard from several parents who agreed with the teachers’ demands but were struggling with the uncertainty of when and how classes would be held.
“They want testing. They want vaccination. They want to know that the classrooms are safe and healthy,” said Mr. La Spata, who represents an area west and northwest of downtown. “They also want stability. They want to know what is going to be happening in the children’s lives from day to day.”
On Wednesday afternoon, with negotiations continuing, teachers gathered by the hundreds outside Union Park for a car caravan.
Christine Dussault, a special-education teacher at Ravenswood Elementary, said that there had been persistent problems with protective equipment and contact tracing, and that getting students to wear masks could be a challenge. Jennifer Friedhart, a seventh-grade teacher at Beaubien Elementary, said teachers were in a difficult position and needed more testing.
“I don’t want to teach remote, but I don’t want to teach when it’s unsafe,” she said. “Right now I feel like it’s unsafe. It’s scary.”
Zolan Kanno-Youngs contributed reporting from Washington.