Written by a CTU member speaking in personal capacity.

The Omicron crisis is spreading to school systems around the country and exposing the total failure of the political establishment to make schools safe after nearly two years of the pandemic. Educators, parents, and students overwhelmingly want in-person learning after experiencing the burden and inadequacy of remote learning. Because political leaders all the way up to Joe Biden have primarily viewed in-person classes as a means to ensure the economy is running and profits are flowing, they have failed to provide schools what they need to function without moving from crisis to crisis. 

Meanwhile, billionaires have made many billions more during the pandemic – Elon Musk’s wealth is equivalent to over 28 Chicago Public Schools (CPS) budgets. Schools lack adequate staff, COVID-19 testing and protections, or modern ventilation. Schools communities are frustrated and educators are struggling to stay in the profession.

In Chicago, as Omicron gathered pace ahead of a January 3 winter break return date, the Democratic establishment led by Mayor Lori Lightfoot made clear that educators, students and parents should not expect anything new beyond the woefully inadequate responses already in place. After two days of in-person learning, and a few rounds of union meetings, educators in the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) voted 73% to take a collective action to fight for the safety measures needed to respond to the Omicron surge and make Chicago in person learning safer in the long term. They left their buildings and planned to continue teaching remotely. This was not intended as a long-term closure of school buildings, but until necessary measures were put in place to keep students and educators safe. CTU’s action should be an inspiration for educators nationally.

Lightfoot responded heavy-handedly, canceling all classes and locking out educators from the CPS’ online portal, throwing working families’ lives into disarray. This vicious response was backed up by President Biden and the corporate media, which is why it’s going to require escalating the struggle to win. Socialist Alternative stands in solidarity with educators and we are mobilizing to support as community members and educators. 

As we brought this piece to press, CTU leadership capitulated to Lightfoot by bringing a totally unsafe plan to the 800 member House of Delegates (HOD) that meets virtually none of educators’ demands. The vote passed 389 – 226 to send educators back to school Jan 11, and students back January 12. Members will have a final vote and should vote “No”, but the leadership set up this vote to take place after teachers have given up their leverage by returning to the buildings. This is highly demoralizing. Passing this deal would be a setback for the schools, and education and safety struggles around the country. In this situation, staying out and returning to the schools without a deal on the 18th when the union proposed to return to in-person learning would be preferable to passing a deal that locks educators, students, and families to a terrible plan. 

CTU Members Fight for Safety, Lightfoot Lies

In Illinois, schools are the top source of known COVID transmission. In CPS, 20% of all COVID cases since the start of the pandemic were recorded in just the first two days back from break, Jan 3-4. On those days, student absences averaged around 30%. In the wider state, child COVID cases and hospitalizations are rising. 

Many educators have experienced their classrooms “flipping to remote” and with this new surge, most dreaded an inevitable flip, which again requires teachers to simultaneously teach sick, quarantined, and unvaccinated kids remotely while the vaccinated kids are in person. 

While teachers have been locked out, principals have gotten notice that regardless of negotiations, numerous classrooms around the city would be going into quarantining. With only a small percentage of CPS students being tested on Monday and Tuesday, 2,400 students have tested positive, resulting in over 9,000 students in quarantine.

In order to slow the spread of Omicron and effectively deliver instruction, a temporary switch to fully remote learning was necessary. Educators approached this crisis with a clear and correct formula. We should go remote for two weeks while the surge is expected to peak and then massively ramp up the in-person learning pandemic response. CTU’s action has undeniably slowed the spread of Omicron. 

With her #LoriLockout, the mayor launched an attack on the whole of the school community with the hopes that she can successfully blame the outrageous burden of school cancellation on educators. Like Democratic mayors around the country, she is looking to deflect any blame from Omicron disruptions from herself and her corporate backers to educators who have been holding up the system for two years under incredible strain.

The key focus of CTU leadership’s safety proposals has been testing for all students except those opted out by their parents, mass distribution of KN95 masks, better contact tracing, and clear metrics for district wide and building closures. These are the minimum things we need to actually respond to the virus in the school and do everything we can to prevent transmission. 

This past Saturday, the CTU leadership brought a concrete proposal to its 800 member House of Delegates that gave some concessions to Lightfoot but they said was aimed at bringing teachers and parents together. However, rather than offering a wider strategy to mobilize the whole power of the working class to defeat Lightfoot, CTU leadership offered concessions designed to seem reasonable in the court of “public opinion” by dropping the demand to test every student, instead calling for random tests of 10% of students per week, unless they opt-out (a step forward from the current opt-in program). 

The problem with this PR-based negotiating strategy is that it told Lightfoot, who had made zero commitments, where negotiations might start. In reality, the CTU leadership’s Saturday maneuver only foreshadowed their total capitulation on Monday.  At the Monday House of Delegates meeting, CTU leadership picked up where they left off on Saturday in lowering expectations. CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates was heard emphasizing how she never sells “dreams”.

There are lots of questions about whether or not the watered-down testing programs would actually protect against the spread of highly-transmissible variants like Omicron. An ineffective agreement with Lightfoot that threatens future workplace actions is worse in many ways than a showdown with Lightfoot that shows CTU is fighting as hard as possible for the policy that could actually protect educators, students and parents’ safely, and which could prepare the ground for future struggles. It’s better to return to work knowing educators took crucial steps to stop an out-of-control spread, with the prospect of staying mobilized to do it again, than it is to sign a rotten agreement with Lightfoot.

Lightfoot immediately rejected the Saturday proposal, except for the distribution of masks, and since Friday attempted to open schools wherever enough adults could be lured back into the building to watch students. Fundamentally, from the establishment’s point of view, more tests means more exposure of their failed approach to handling the pandemic, but publicly they claim it’s impossible to produce enough tests. It’s an incredible indictment of the political establishment and American capitalism that two years into a pandemic they still can’t produce adequate tests and PPE. Socialists call for using the Defense Production Act to immediately ramp up the production of testing kits and PPE, to the scale needed to protect health. If corporations are not able to fulfill the orders, they should be brought into public ownership.

Some CPS buildings remained nominally open, staffed by educators organized by SEIU 73, whose leadership is far more timid and whose members enjoy lower pay and fewer protections. CTU needs to bring these educators into the fold, and develop a strategy to actually shut down the schools. Along these lines, rank-and-file members, including members of Socialist Alternative, launched their own petition calling for a more fighting approach rooted in solidarity with CTU, students and parents. Even 75% of principals have called on Lightfoot to stop these openings. Educators report widespread parent sympathy at working class schools, but Lightfoot is trying to build parent support around a vow to stop any move to temporary remote learning at any cost.

CTU Leaders Step out Front of the Fight For Safety, But Fail to Develop Escalation Strategy 

More union leaders should be calling votes of their membership and taking action like CTU leaders have in this Omicron crisis. However, CTU leaders were blindsided by the lockout and they were unprepared for the type of rapid escalation needed to force Lightfoot to back down from a lockout. The ensuing confusion has led many educators and working class parents to question why these actions were not organized in anticipation for winter break and the looming Omicron surge. The chaos Lightfoot created has also allowed her to gain advantages in the struggle. Before Monday’s deal her strategy was simply to wait teachers out until Tuesday January 18th when the CTU action was set to end. 

Rank and file educators’ actions in the face of all this have been heroic. Many CTU educators were demobilized and demoralized from the reopening struggle exactly one year ago when Lightfoot and CPS forced educators back into unsafe buildings under less than ideal hybrid instruction models and very little safety protocols. In 2021, CTU leaders backed down from struggle when educators were ready to fight. In 2022, they got out ahead of members and acted more decisively. Educators voted by the thousands on January 4 for safety action and are standing up to Lightfoot. Passive support for this action shifted to active engagement among more and more members. 

Educators were ready for a larger mobilization, flyering their communities, disrupting downtown business as usual with car caravans, holding daily building union meetings, convincing members to come out of buildings, organizing school by school parent outreach, and setting up fundraising for members struggling with the potential lost pay in this struggle. Thousands of low-paid SEIU members are participating in the struggle, despite their union being woefully unprepared for it. CPS is trying to run the schools on the back of these workers. Hundreds of members are also not going into schools. SEIU leaders have given a work-to-rule order for those that are. Rank and file SEIU members have responded to the crisis by launching a public petition that has gotten hundreds of signatures.

Now members will need to vote “No” and build a rank and file centered struggle to escalate pressure on Lightfoot and win safe schools.

Mistakes that CTU leaders have made in the past and have contributed to the current crisis should be avoided. One of the most important reasons educators find themselves in such a terrible situation is the union leadership’s unwillingness to confront Democratic Party politicians, especially Biden. Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, brags about being inside Biden’s inner-circle. Even though she offered a statement of support to the CTU, she has not spoken out against Biden’s insistence that schools remain open (while failing to do anything to stop the Delta and Omicron variants, and abandoning meaningful policy proposals to help working families navigate the pandemic). In this context, it’s especially outrageous that CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates played further into this failed strategy, saying “the Biden administration has done everything that they were supposed to do”.

The way must be opened for wider parent and community support to enter this struggle. We cannot rely on “one day longer” strategies when Lightfoot is trying to wait us out. Safety struggles need to call on other unions around the city and nation to mobilize in support. The labor movement should mobilize against downtown corporate titans who profit off of this city while attacking public services. Literally quadrillions of dollars pass through the Lasalle street untaxed every year! We must disrupt business-as-usual for Lightfoot’s wealthy supporters to put pressure on her. 

Organizing needs to be done to completely shut down the egregiously unplanned, unsupervised, and unsafe openings that Lightfoot is undertaking. First and foremost, this means voting down the rotten deal with the CPS. Then CTU members need to rapidly mobilize to force the leadership to authorize members to leave the buildings while working closely with SEIU to help its members stay out of the buildings until it’s safe to return.  

National Stakes

One year ago, Lightfoot successfully forced an inadequate safety plan onto Chicago schools and emboldened the Democratic establishment nationally to continue their criminal negligence of schools. Working people, unions, and left elected officials must mobilize to win rank and file educators’ basic safety proposals and prevent another setback. By taking remote action, educators undoubtedly helped slow Omicron spread. But we must be clear that our demands to return to safe in-person learning and the original CTU proposals are really just a start. 

We will need to be able to test students and staff district wide on a weekly basis, and schools need massively ramped up staffing, otherwise proposals like contact tracing or metrics become meaningless. The gross underfunding and understaffing of the return to in person learning this fall, the mishandling of the Omicron surge by the Democratic establishment have created chaos in schools nationally with school closures forced in many areas due to the massive number of infected teachers and other staff. 

At the same time the establishment’s response to the pandemic in 2020-21 forcing remote learning rather than serious policies to reign in the pandemic and investing the resources to create safe in person learning environments, has been a disaster for kids. Now in the middle of the biggest COVID wave of all, they simply want school buildings to remain open no matter what. They have essentially abandoned any meaningful approach to public safety.

Unfortunately, the CTU leadership’s early capitulation will have a chilling effect on similar developing struggles across the country. We need to point out that Chicago educators are willing to fight, and their bold actions to shut down Lightfoot’s reckless reopening showed that solidarity in action is the way to fight. The Democratic establishment and the billionaire backers cannot and will not solve this crisis. Our safety fight is against the background of recent strikes in different industries, growing worker power due to the labor shortage, and anger at the establishment. We must connect these struggles together and build a class struggle response to COVID crisis, including a new party and rebuilt labor movement!

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