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Chicago mayor’s plan to shame school teachers into submission won’t work

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said teachers who won’t come to work unless the city improves its testing process are “taking our children hostage.” She needs a new strategy.


Chicago Public Schools canceled classes for a second day on Thursday, continuing a faceoff between teachers alleging insufficient Covid-19 safety measures and state officials who are demanding in-person classes resume. 

The Chicago Teachers Union voted Tuesday night to switch to remote learning as the omicron variant continues to spread. In response, the school district — the third-largest in the country — canceled all classes. The union is asking the state to impose universal testing for students or allow a two-week transition to remote learning.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot, a Democrat, has called the union’s move to virtual teaching illegal, and she filed an unfair labor practices complaint Wednesday. Chicago Public Schools reported a record number of new Covid cases on Tuesday, complicating the mayor’s claims that increased mitigation measures are unnecessary.

Nonetheless, Lightfoot and her administration are taking a tough tack in their effort to get teachers to return to classrooms, using public condemnation in addition to her official complaint. 

Photo illustration: Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot battles the city's teachers' union
MSNBC / Getty Images

"I will not allow [the Chicago Teachers Union] to take our children hostage," she said during a news conference Wednesday. "I will not allow them to compromise the future of this generation of CPS students. That is not going to happen."

She also dismissed the demand for more testing. 

"We are not going to rob parents of their right and their obligation to tell us if they want testing or not on their children," she said. "It’s not going to happen. It’s morally wrong."

It would behoove the mayor to be more sympathetic toward the union’s complaints here. Early reports so far suggest the omicron variant taking hold across the country is less deadly — but more contagious — than previous variants. That means there’s still a risk in transmission, with immunocompromised people, including those who are vaccinated, facing greater risks of harsher symptoms. That’s not negligible. 

Investing in Chicago’s future, as Lightfoot claims she’s doing, isn’t an excuse to ignore present dangers. With the continuous spread of Covid and its variants, the uncertainty of their impacts and Lightfoot’s own aversion to universal testing, the mayor’s heavy-handed approach to get teachers back in classrooms doesn’t seem honorable. It just comes across as unreasonably harsh. 

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