The Chicago Teachers Union could refuse to work in person as of Wednesday, raising the prospect of a debilitating standoff over omicron as schools across the country delay openings, consider remote options and mandate testing amid a record-breaking surge of coronavirus infections.
Schools in Chicago reopened as planned Monday, but the union scheduled a Tuesday vote in which its 25,000 members will decide whether to support a plan that favors virtual work over the classroom as of Wednesday.
The public school board must sanction remote learning. Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez has said he stands “firmly behind the decision to protect our students’ physical and mental health and promote their academic progress by keeping CPS schools safely open for in-person learning,” according to WBEZ Chicago.
A walkout by the union, which has a list of demands that include proof of negative tests for students and high-quality masks in the classroom, could result in a standoff that cripples the system.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot dismissed the union‘s “saber-rattling” as Democratic city leaders took a harder line on keeping classrooms open to avoid the academic and social pitfalls of remote learning.
“We need to keep our kids in schools, which is what we’re going to do in Chicago,” Ms. Lightfoot told CNBC.
In recent days, New York Mayor Eric Adams resisted similar requests for a remote option from a major union in his city. The new mayor said children are safest in the classroom, but he is increasing COVID-19 testing at schools and considering mandatory booster vaccinations for teachers and staff.
“Our schools will open. A child must be in school for so many reasons,” Mr. Adams, a Democrat, told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
His education chancellor, David Banks, used an elementary school visit with the mayor to announce a Department of Education COVID-19 command center, where principals and district leadership can report issues and get help, including staff, to keep schools open.
The United Federation of Teachers warned of a tough week, however, given staffing shortages. The union had requested a one-week postponement of in-person learning.
“We do not have enough substitutes to fill in all the blanks,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew told Fox 5’s “Good Day New York.” “We’re looking between 20 to 30 percent absenteeism, and that’s something we do not have the substitutes to cover that.”
The U.S. is recording more infections than ever before in the pandemic. Reported cases skyrocketed to more than 400,000 in a single day Sunday, though many more infections might not be detected.
Hospitalizations are approaching 100,000 but remain below the pandemic high of 137,000. Scientists hope vaccinations reduce the severity of illness and point to data suggesting that omicron doesn’t attack the lungs as fiercely as prior strains.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently shortened the period of recommended isolation from 10 days to five, given that most transmission occurs early in the illness and the burden on schools and other workforces. Federal officials increasingly say hospitalization, rather than any infection, should be the accurate marker of whether the vaccination push and broader pandemic fight is working or not.
Still, major industries and schools are struggling with staffing shortages, given fears about transmission at the workplace.
Airlines have canceled more than 15,000 flights since Christmas Eve. Chaos in the industry persisted through the weekend, with 2,700 flights canceled Sunday and 2,700 that had to be scrapped on New Year’s Day, according to the FlightAware tracker.
Wintry weather caused even more cancellations at key airports from Denver to the East Coast.
Because of a snowstorm Monday, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser gave students an extra day, until Wednesday, to submit negative COVID-19 test results before returning to school. Classes will resume Thursday.
The Seattle school district scrapped Monday classes so students could be tested before returning Tuesday. The school district in Detroit has canceled classes for Monday through Wednesday as it sets up a framework in which students either consent to virus testing or enroll in virtual school as of Jan. 31.
Other school districts said the surge in the omicron variant sparked unsustainable shortages of bus drivers, teachers and substitutes.
“Our administrative team has worked diligently throughout the winter break in an effort to prepare for our return to school tomorrow. However, at this point in time, it is not safely feasible for us to open our schools tomorrow and Tuesday,” the Stonington, Connecticut, school district told parents in a statement canceling Monday and Tuesday classes.
The school system in Newark, New Jersey, started the year with two weeks of remote learning, given the winter surge.
“This is not the news I want to be sharing with students and their families at this time because we need to continue in-person instruction,” Superintendent Roger Leon said in a statement. “But the health and safety of students and staff remains the top priority.”
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, said he won’t let remote learning become a default option.
“Let me be clear: We currently have no intention or plan to shut our schools,” Mr. Murphy said. “We have no desire to return to remote learning, which is suboptimal, as we all know, in terms of learning, instruction and learning loss. Certainly, individual schools and districts may make their own decision after consulting their own local health departments, and some are starting the second half in remote fashion, but we will do everything we can to keep our kids in school.”
National Nurses United urged all school districts Monday to offer remote learning as an option to families amid the omicron surge.
“We always advise people to practice physical distancing in order to avoid infection, but schoolchildren are actually required to gather in large groups every day,” said Martha Kuhl, secretary-treasurer of NNU, the largest union of registered nurses in the U.S. “The responsible thing to do to protect them is to provide an alternative to in-person school through remote learning until we get this surge under better control.”
The Biden administration has resisted those types of calls. Officials say children can learn safely in the classroom with masking and other measures.
“We can do it safely,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “We have better tools than we had in the past to get it done. We know what works, and I believe even with omicron, our default should be in-person learning for all students across the country.”
Hoping to thwart the spread of omicron among teens and adolescents, the Food and Drug Administration on Monday cleared booster shots from Pfizer-BioNTech for Americans ages 12 to 15 and shortened the minimum interval between a primary vaccine series and a booster shot from six months to five months.
Regulators also cleared an extra dose for immunocompromised 5- to 11-year-olds, who may need a third shot to be adequately protected.
A booster for younger ages may offer greater protection as schools grapple with the winter surge. People who received an initial Pfizer shot in the latter half of 2021 might be getting antsy as scientists point to boosters as a necessary bulwark against omicron.
“The omicron variant appears to be slightly more resistant to the antibody levels produced in response to the primary series doses from the current vaccines,” said Peter Marks, director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research. “With this in mind, the FDA has extended the range of individuals eligible to receive a booster, shortened the length of time between the completion of the Pfizer primary series for individuals to receive a booster and is authorizing a third protective vaccine dose for some of our youngest and most vulnerable individuals.”
For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.
• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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