“He just lost”: The Chicago school struggle leaves families in Limbo

Maggie Owens’s 4-year-old daughter pounded on the back door, desperate to go to school.

Her daughter, Louise, a student with a brain disorder, was one of the first Chicago schoolchildren to return to the classroom last month. But then, two and a half weeks after the district’s intermittent reopening plan, a clash between the city and its teachers ’union pushed everyone back to distance learning, and Mrs. Owens told Louise she needed to return to computer-based learning.

– He just lost it. She started crying, ”Mrs. Owens recalled, adding,“ It started in a routine, she was happy, and then we just ripped it off.

After a nearly two-week personal teaching break, Chicago’s public schools and teachers ’union reached a pilot agreement to counter the strike after educators refused to work in person in the pandemic without further security concessions.

If it becomes final, the district said the agreement announced on Sunday will allow about 3,000 students to return to kindergarten and some special education classrooms, such as Ms. Owens ’daughter, on Thursday. The district is the third largest in the country with 340,000 public school students.

Ms. Owens, who lives on the northwest side of the city, said she was pleased that an agreement had been reached. But he was disappointed both in the district and in the union because he allowed the conflict to become critical.

“I feel what’s lost in it, there are real people and real kids who are being harmed,” he said. “And I feel like my daughter is one of them.”

The House of Delegates of the Chicago Teachers ’Union, a roughly 800-member governing body, voted Monday night to sign an agreement with the city to confirm the full membership of 25,000. The ranking will vote electronically, with results expected by midnight Tuesday.

The convention will allow all eighth-grade students in kindergartens, as well as some high school students with disabilities, to return to schools in the coming weeks.

As part of the deal, the city has committed to offering 2,000 doses of coronavirus vaccine a week to classroom staff and all other employees scheduled to reopen on Thursday who live with people at high risk for the virus. It would then provide 1,500 servings a week to school staff in the weeks that followed.

Teachers who have no students in personal classes could continue distance learning, and unvaccinated teachers could take unpaid leave for the next quarter instead of personal teaching. The agreement also set limits on what would lead to a temporary return to distance learning in the district as well as in individual schools or classrooms.

A similar battle took place on Monday in Philadelphia, where teachers were distance learning in the cold in front of dozens of school buildings to protest what the union called an unsafe reopening plan.

Philadelphia is scheduled to bring back kindergartens back to schools through second-grade students on Feb. 22, and teachers in those grades were originally due to report to the buildings on Monday. But the local union instructed them to stay home, settling accounts.

At the last minute, Mayor Jim Kenney said teachers did not have to work in person while an intermediary reviewed the district’s reopening plan.

In Chicago, Willie Preston, a father of six who lives on the South Side, said his youngest daughter, Lear, who is in kindergarten, was also embarrassed after her school opened briefly last month and then closed again. He was excited to go to school one morning when his wife had to tell him the news.

“He started crying and pouting why he couldn’t go to school,” Mr. Preston said. “And we had to talk to him and try to explain to him whether the adults are struggling to get back to school or not.”

He said he had not yet told Lear that he could probably return to school on Thursday if the union voted for the convention and the district went into chaos again.

“For my wife and me, one of the most important things for us and our children is stability,” she said. “I don’t want to do this to our 4-year-old until I’m sure he’s really coming back.”

Ellen Almer Durston contributed to the report.