Demonstrators including New York City public school teachers and school staff attend a rally demanding increased COVID-19 safety measures and a remote learning option on Jan. 10 in New York City. Educators have denounced Mayor Eric Adams, Department of Education Chancellor David Banks, and other city leaders for keeping schools open with no remote learning option amidst the city's surge of positive cases. (Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images)

When Nora Flanagan tried logging on to Google Classroom on Jan. 5 to teach her high school English students remotely, she found that she was locked out of the system like hundreds of other Chicago Public School teachers, and was incapable of teaching or communicating with her students. It was a retaliatory move from the CPS district after the teachers’ union voted 73% in favor of a work action refusing in-person instruction and switching to remote learning until Jan. 18 to keep students and teachers safe amidst surging COVID-19 cases. On Jan. 3, the first day back to school after the two-week holiday break, the U.S. reported over 1 million new COVID-19 cases in just one day. Just two days prior, Chicago’s positivity rate had risen to 21.1%. Last year, the closing metric for Chicago public schools was 15%, meaning if the city’s overall positivity was 15% higher than the previous week for seven days, the schools would immediately go remote. 

Like other educators who teach in majority Black and brown communities across the nation, CPS teachers sounded the alarm on the dangers of in-person school during the Omicron surge. They called for increased testing, better safety protocols, and defined closing metrics. Students and educators across the nation are taking matters into their own hands and pushing for online learning and more sufficient classroom safeguards to protect themselves from the recent Omicron surges. Teachers in Brooklyn, New York; Hayward, San Francisco; and Oakland, California, have staged sick-outs after their districts refused to close schools. In East Baton Rouge, Louisiana, teachers are planning a sick-out Wednesday over a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases at the school.

“More kids and more families are getting sick,” Flanagan said. “The sting of being called ‘lazy’ when running ourselves into the ground arguing for basic safety and survival measures is really demoralizing.”

In Chicago, most of the 25,000 union teachers went five days without pay, and with remote learning shut off by the district, students had no way of receiving instruction. Late Monday night, the union finally reached a tentative deal with the district and agreed to resume in-person instruction Wednesday morning and end the work action. The approved plan also included increased availability of rapid tests and an agreement to monitor student and staff attendance and implement five-day closures for individual schools where 40% of students are in quarantine or 30% of staff is absent two days in a row. However, some don’t see the deal as being proactive enough.

“It seems like there was no progress made at all,” said Jules Alvarez, a junior at Back of the Yards College Prep in Chicago. “They could say that they’re going to provide us with masks, but most likely it won’t happen. I support [the Chicago Teachers Union], and I’m in solidarity with them, but I’m disappointed at this decision.” 

Flanagan, who has been teaching in Chicago for almost 24 years, has two children in the CPS system and is a delegate of the teachers’ union. She said the union had been pushing the mayorally controlled school board to consider a remote option after the holidays, but the requests were continuously denied, with the board saying it was not necessary. After the holiday break last week, Flanagan returned to the classroom and witnessed the positivity rates among students and staff skyrocketing and attendance plummeting. The new agreement assures critical safety measures for teachers, but the victory did not come without a personal cost. 

Other public schools in Milwaukee, Atlanta, New Jersey, and Detroit have agreed to go remote temporarily until at least Jan. 18. The New York Times reports that more than 1 million of the country’s 50 million public schools were affected by district-wide shutdowns after the holiday break.

“We wanted to teach, and instead of acknowledging any one of our emails that was sent, our principal chose to ignore us and dismiss us,” said Valerie Vargas, a charter school teacher and union member in Chicago. “It was very disappointing.”

Flanagan said that despite the criticism of teachers across the country and the limited safety precautions in the classrooms, she finds comfort in the fact that “we have still kept everybody safer and at home for at least a few days.”

“Nobody loves remote [learning],” Flanagan said. “Remote teaching to a screen full of avatars for an entire school year was not awesome, but the rates are what they are right now.” 

Students across the country are also speaking up about their fears and frustrations of returning to classrooms during surging high infection rates. Students in the nation’s largest high school in Brooklyn, New York, walked out in protest on Tuesday over continuing in-person school. In Columbia, Missouri, 120 students walked out on Monday after the school board decided to drop the mandatory mask mandate. 

After almost two years of learning through a pandemic, a group of Chicago students recently formed a coalition named the Chicago Public Schools Radical Youth Alliance. Concerned about returning to school Wednesday, the group wrote a list of demands for what they require to return safely. Some of the demands include remote learning and strategies to mitigate the issues that may arise, bringing students to the bargaining table, enhanced testing, and better PPE for students and faculty. They do not plan on attending school Wednesday.

One member of the coalition, Santiago De La Garza, a junior at Solorio Academy, is particularly concerned about contracting the virus and infecting his already vulnerable community at home. 

“There’s just no way to keep my school safe with the current population,” De La Garza said.

“I’m really scared about catching COVID in school, especially since my mom does not want to get vaccinated, and I have a nephew who’s 10 months and he can’t get vaccinated. I’m not just thinking about myself. I’m thinking about my family, and I’m thinking about a lot of different families.”

Another member, Judai Smith, a senior at Kenwood Academy, has had family members die from the virus and wants the CPS district to take community spread and lack of access to health care, which many CPS families face, into consideration.

“Health care for Black and brown families is not what it looks like for the CPS board. So I don’t think they get it when we say we’re afraid of catching COVID,” Smith said. “Not everyone has access to good health care and good insurance to be able to afford it. COVID is a really scary thing and we don’t see it sometimes, but when you’re actually in community with these people, you see that people are dying.”

Caregivers have been debating the flaws and frustrations of in-person and remote learning since the beginning of the pandemic, because of a lack of community support and flexibility to take time off of work. While parents like Flanagan admit that remote learning adds stress to caregivers who may not be able to take time off of work, she said the stakes are high enough that staying home could mean saving the lives of community members. Flanagan’s husband is a firefighter who cannot take sick days or personal time off. That means she had to teach her five classes while multitasking helping her two children working on different remote learning programs. 

“We’re almost two years into a deadly global pandemic and employers still can’t give parents the flexibility to support their kids, it’s a difficult situation,” Flanagan said. “I understand how challenging that is, but I also know that my 15-year-old son’s best friend was nearly hospitalized with COVID last week.”

With COVID-19 cases still on the rise across the country and the number of infections on track to surpass last year’s record, Flanagan hopes the actions by teachers in Chicago will give other educators and students the courage to prioritize their health.

“We made some gains, we made some compromises, too,” Flanagan said. “As the only union in the country to take a stand like this so far, hopefully we inspired other teachers and districts to fight for better protections where they are, too.”

Alexandra Martinez

Alexandra Martinez is the Senior News Reporter at Prism. She is a Cuban-American writer based in Miami, Florida, with an interest in immigration, the economy, gender justice, and the environment. Her work...