Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced a deal with the Chicago Teachers Union on Monday that would return students to classrooms on Wednesday after a dispute over coronavirus safeguards canceled a week of classes in the country’s third-largest school district.
“No one is more frustrated than I am,” Ms. Lightfoot said after the deal was reached. She added: “I’m glad that we’re hopefully putting this behind us and looking forward. But there does come a point when enough is enough.” The deal, which city officials said included provisions for additional testing and metrics that would close schools with major virus outbreaks, was approved by the union’s House of Delegates on Monday night and was expected to be voted on later in the week by rank-and-file teachers.
On Tuesday, Ms. Lightfoot said she had tested positive for the coronavirus after experiencing cold-like symptoms. The mayor, who said she was vaccinated and boosted, said she planned to work from home.
Under the deal, teachers were expected to return to school buildings on Tuesday, with students joining them the next day. Leaders of the union described the agreement as imperfect and were highly critical of Ms. Lightfoot, but they said the deal was needed given the conditions teachers are facing in the pandemic. “This agreement is the only modicum of safety that is available for anyone that steps foot in the Chicago Public Schools, especially in the places in the city where testing is low and where vaccination rates are low,” said Stacy Davis Gates, the union’s vice president.
School leaders across the United States have scrambled to adjust to the highly infectious Omicron variant, which has pushed the country’s daily case totals to record levels and led to record hospitalizations. Most school districts have forged ahead with in-person instruction, as the Biden administration has urged, sometimes quarantining individual students or classrooms as outbreaks emerge. Some large districts, including in Milwaukee and Cleveland, have moved class online.
But the debate in Chicago proved uniquely bitter and unpredictable, with hundreds of thousands of children pulled out of class two days after winter break when teachers voted to stop reporting to their classrooms. Rather than teach online, as the union proposed, the school district canceled class altogether.
Chicago Public Schools leaders have insisted that virus precautions were in place and that pausing in-person instruction would unfairly burden parents and harm students’ academic and social progress. Union members said that the schools were not safe, that more testing was needed and that classes should be temporarily moved online.
The Chicago area, like much of the country, is averaging far more new cases each day than at any previous point in the pandemic. The Omicron variant is believed to cause less severe illness than prior forms of the virus, with vaccinated people unlikely to face severe outcomes. Still, coronavirus hospitalizations in Illinois have exceeded their peak levels from last winter and continue to rise sharply.
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. But their efforts to reassure parents and teachers have sometimes faltered. The district 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.