Chicago Teachers Locked Out of Digital Classrooms Amid Omicron Surge

Chicago Teachers Locked Out of Digital Classrooms Amid Omicron Surge

Chicago Public School teachers attempting to teach students remotely on Wednesday discovered they’d been locked out of their digital classrooms, an apparent effort by city officials to prevent a return to remote education amid recent spikes in covid-19 cases among students and teachers.

The lockout followed a late-night vote by rank-and-file members of the Chicago Teachers Union to pause in-person learning, citing public health data that shows a soaring number of cases at schools across the city.

Roughly three-fourths of CTU members voted in favour of the resolution, which also accused the Chicago Board of Education of withholding data on the spread of covid-19 at schools, and of discarding protocols established early last year to combat the spread of the virus among public school community members.

Those protocols, which sunset at the end of last year, required schools to transition to remote learning if the rate of citywide infections spiked 15% higher than the week before over a period of seven days. Citing covid-19 tracking data by the City of Chicago, union officials said the city’s positivity rate is currently 74% higher than it was a week before.

“To be clear: Educators of this city want to be in buildings with their students,” the teachers union said in a statement shortly after Tuesday night’s vote. “We believe that classrooms are where our children should be. But as the results tonight show, [Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot] and her CPS team have yet to provide safety for the overwhelming majority of schools.”

CTU President Jesse Sharkey told reporters on Wednesday that the virus was “raging through the city” and that city officials had failed to deliver on “basic demands” for adequate staffing and covid-19 testing to address the health threat.

In a letter to parents, Pedro Martinez, CEO of Chicago Public Schools, framed the decision by teachers as a refusal to report to work. “We want our children back in their classroom as soon as possible,” he said, “and will continue working with the CTU to reach an agreement that addresses their concerns and that is in the best interest of all in our CPS community, especially our children.”

Some 340,000 students missed school on Wednesday, unable to attend classes in person or remotely by computer. Numerous Chicago teachers tweeted that they’d been locked out of Google Classroom, the platform used by the city to conduct remote learning.

Cesar Rodriguez, a spokesperson for Mayor Lightfoot, referred all questions to Chicago Public Schools (CPS). A CPS spokesperson told Gizmodo: “We are working on this and will get back you as soon as we have something to share.”

A spokesperson for the CTU did not immediately respond for comment.

Dennis Kosuth, a Chicago school nurse who works with students who have a learning disability, as well as those with health issues like diabetes and attention deficit disorder (ADD), told Gizmodo by phone that he and other teachers had found various workarounds to continue their work on Wednesday.

“I’ve not been able to access any of my documents or assessments because I’ve been locked out, so I’ve basically just had to work off memory,” Kosuth said. “But we’re still able to meet with the parents remotely just because anyone can open up a Google Meet or call a parent and have a conversation with them.”

“To me, it just shows that parents can get services remotely. And that’s what we don’t understand,” continued Kosuth, who said staff at Chicago’s Virtual Academy, which caters specifically to students that require remote learning for medical reasons, had also been locked out of the system.

“We want to have a safe environment for our students, for our communities; this disease affects a lot of people; and we want safe working conditions for ourselves as well. But we can provide these services remotely, if needed, during a spike in covid, which is what’s happening right now,” he said.

According to data from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of children with confirmed cases of covid-19 has reached new record highs — a surge attributed to the highly transmissible variant of the coronavirus known as Omicron.

On average last week, more than 670 children were hospitalized nationwide on daily basis, the CDC data shows.

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