Capitulation? Chicago teachers end walkout

AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

So what did Chicago teachers get out of their one-week refusal to return to work? Besides fueling the parental-rights movement and encouraging home-schooling, that is? Random testing of children for COVID on a much smaller and more useless scale, and that’s about it:

A proposal for Chicago Public Schools to resume in-person classes Wednesday has been approved by the Chicago Teachers Union’s House of Delegates following a contentious weeklong standoff.

The delegates also voted Monday night to suspend the union’s work action that saw teachers refuse to give their lessons in person, prompting the cancellation of the last four school days. There will be no Tuesday classes though teachers will report to schools for planning.

In addition to a return to in-person teaching Wednesday, the plan the House of Delegates approved will set conditions by which an individual school would return to remote learning, determined by the rate of staff absences and students in quarantine or isolation, as well as whether it’s during a period of high community COVID-19 transmission, where a lower threshold would apply.

The CTU wanted the city to revert to all-online instruction for the duration of the Omicron wave. The city refused that and ordered them back to work. CTU insisted that schools test every child, which Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot also refused. The teachers settled for an oddball audit system instead (spelling errors in CBS/MSN original):

“This has been a very unpleasant experience,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey late Monday, according to CBS Chicago. “The CTU felt like we were asking for a set of reasonable things — obviously as teachers who have been in buildings since the beginning of the school year.”

CTU chief of staff Jen Johnson said in a virtual press conference Monday night that the agreement includes testing at leas 10% of students at each school for COVID-19 on a weekly basis. The union had been requesting much wider testing that parents would have to explicitly opt out of, but the district and Lightfoot would not agree to that. The plan also gves clear metrics for when schools would switch to remote learning, Johnson said.

Schools will go to remote learning if they are in an area of high transmission according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and 40% of students are in isoloation or quarantine due to COVID-19 protocols. Schools could also go remote if 50% of students are in isolation or quaratine even if the transmission rate is no longer considered high by CDC standards. Another scenario that could cause a school to switch to remote learning would be if 30% of teachers are in isolation and total teacher absences exceed 25% even with substitutes.

What will this regime tell anyone about actual risk? If teachers are vaccinated and boosted, they have a 99.997% of avoiding death in any variant, and that’s if they have four or more comorbidities. The odds are much smaller for the vaccinated that have three or fewer comorbidities. The risks are likely going to be orders of magnitude smaller with Omicron, vaccinated or not. If teachers and staff aren’t vaccinated and boosted by now, they’re assuming the risk of exposure, not the children who remain almost entirely un-impacted by COVID-19.

But even if this measured a significant risk, what would a 10% audit really do? Assuming a student body of 1000, it would test 100 students each week, and presumably gauge overall exposure based on the percentage of positives. However, the risks change with variants; finding 40 students with Delta, for instance, would be very different than finding 40 students with Omicron. Testing once per week is also a pretty long cycle for measuring community transmission of a virus as transmissible as COVID-19 in any variant, let alone the exponentially more transmissible Omicron.

So who exactly does this benefit? Not the students, who would be more likely to develop serious flu cases than COVID cases, especially with Omicron, from the latest data. It really doesn’t do anything for vaccinated teachers and staff either, whose risk factor drops to nearly zero, as Rochelle Walensky explained yesterday. Its only purpose, to the extent this regime has any, is to protect teachers and staff that refuse to vaccinate, or who are so immune compromised that they perhaps shouldn’t be in a classroom setting at all with children. And, of course, to give teachers an excuse not to show up in classrooms.

In fact, that seems to be the only win CTU got from their walkout: a formal process by which they can call another walkout in an environment where risks are significantly dropping for everyone, especially children. Otherwise, this is sheer capitulation and CTU knows it. They expected to get more support from their allies and found out just how isolated teachers unions have become, politically as well as socially. When even Lori Lightfoot can outbox you, it’s time to retreat and take stock.