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In-person classes in Chicago are set to resume Wednesday with a deal on COVID-safety

A sign on the front of the headquarters for Chicago Public Schools. Class is set to resume Wednesday after days of canceled lessons.
Scott Olson
Getty Images
A sign on the front of the headquarters for Chicago Public Schools. Class is set to resume Wednesday after days of canceled lessons.

Updated January 11, 2022 at 2:13 PM ET

Students are expected to be back in classrooms on Wednesday in Chicago after five days of canceled classes due to a bitter dispute between the teachers union and city officials.

The two groups spent days at the bargaining table in a standoff over COVID-19 safety, causing 300,000 students in the nation's third-largest school district to miss classes. The Chicago Teachers Union's elected House of Delegates voted Monday to suspend remote work action while rank-and-file union members vote on a proposed COVID-19 safety agreement later this week.

The stalemate was tense. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot called the union action an illegal walkout and said that teachers "abandoned their posts and they abandoned kids and their families." Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said the mayor is "unfit to lead this city and she is on a one-woman kamikaze mission to destroy our public schools."

The sides reached an agreement Monday for students to return to in-person learning with added safety measures. However, the safety agreement didn't include all of the provisions the union was fighting for. New protections include a metric to move individual schools to remote learning if a certain amount of staff or students are quarantined for COVID-19, a step the union has long called for.

The union's pressure also brought awareness to the school district's faulty testing program, which struggled with low participation and a shortage of tests, WBEZ's Sarah Karp reports. In response, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced the state was stepping in to help the school system get more tests.

When it comes to testing, under the new agreement, 10% of students will be randomly selected and tested, according to WBEZ. Lightfoot strongly opposed the union's request for a system where students are automatically enrolled and can be opted out from testing by their parents.

The union voted last week to refuse in-person work until Jan.18 to push the district to adopt stricter COVID-19 precautions. In response, the school district locked teachers out of their computer accounts and canceled classes rather than begin virtual teaching. Lightfoot vigorously opposed a return to remote learning and argued added safety measures weren't necessary despite the omicron variant's surge.

The union said teachers don't like remote learning either, but insufficient COVID-precautions in the schools were putting staff and students at risk.

Sarah Karp and the team at member station WBEZ in Chicago have more here.

This story originally appeared in the Morning Edition Live Blog.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nell Clark
Nell Clark is an editor at Morning Edition and a writer for NPR's Live Blog. She pitches stories, edits interviews and reports breaking news. She started in radio at campus station WVFS at Florida State University, then covered climate change and the aftermath of Hurricane Michael for WFSU in Tallahassee, Fla. She joined NPR in 2019 as an intern at Weekend All Things Considered. She is proud to be a member of NPR's Peer-to-Peer Trauma Support Team, a network of staff trained to support colleagues dealing with trauma at work. Before NPR, she worked as a counselor at a sailing summer camp and as a researcher in a deep-sea genetics lab.