Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced on Tuesday that she has tested positive for COVID-19, right after a battle with one of the country’s largest and strongest teachers unions over safety precautions to curb the virus in the city’s public schools.
“Earlier today, I tested positive for COVID-19. I am experiencing cold-like symptoms but otherwise feel fine which I credit to being vaccinated and boosted,” Lightfoot tweeted. “I will continue to work from home while following the CDC guidelines for isolation. This is an urgent reminder for folks to get vaccinated and boosted as it’s the only way to beat this pandemic.”
The irony of Lightfoot having testing access and the ability to work remotely was not lost on members of the Chicago Teachers Union, who voted last week to move from in-person to remote learning. The rise of COVID-19 cases in Chicago has led to severe staffing shortages in schools, as well as sick children and families of both employees and students.
Last week’s union vote sparked a nasty standoff between the city’s teachers and the mayor, who vehemently opposes remote learning. Prior to the vote, Chicago Public Schools had refused to implement measures the union had outlined for a safe work environment — such as opt-out testing (which would make students automatically eligible for COVID tests at school unless parents or guardians opt them out), as well as better contact tracing and a metric to trigger a district-wide shift to remote learning.
After the vote, the school district locked educators out of their remote learning accounts, preventing them from teaching children altogether. Eight Chicago Public Schools students who spoke to The TRiiBE said that while remote learning is difficult, they felt there should be no in-person classes as long as CPS refuses to implement proper safety precautions.
In 2020, Chicago received about $1.2 billion in federal funds from the CARES Act to help with pandemic relief. Lightfoot came under fire from activists and city council members for using almost 60% of the discretionary funds to cover overtime hours for police. The city later received almost $2 billion in federal aid as part of the American Rescue Plan, some of which community organizers accused the mayor of allocating to pay down city debt instead of helping residents and schools. The mayor’s office has denied the allegation to the Chicago Sun-Times.
Less than 24 hours before announcing her positive COVID test, Lightfoot announced that the city had reached a tentative agreement with the Chicago Teachers Union to allow about 340,000 students to return to in-person classes on Wednesday.
The tentative agreement includes CPS providing KN95 masks for staff and students to use in addition to the medical-grade masks and other face-covering protective gear the district will provide through the end of the school year. Every school would have a contact tracing team staffed with people from the school already familiar with the community.
The majority of the union’s elected representatives voted on Monday in favor of suspending their remote work action to return to school buildings this week while the more than 25,000 union members vote on whether to approve the tentative agreement with the city.
The tentative safety agreement lacks many of the key protections teachers sought, according to WBEZ. Lightfoot strongly opposed an opt-out testing strategy, so the union agreed to help get more students to opt in. And the mayor was against a metric to trigger districtwide remote learning,
“Remember, we weren’t fighting to make something good a little better. We had zero metric. The CPS CEO announced he didn’t think he needed agreements with our union. The mayor was willing to sacrifice people’s health to protect her image,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said on Tuesday.
“It’s not fair or just, but we had to fight this hard to win even the basic protections that we forced the mayor to agree to,” Sharkey said. “And while it falls short of so many things that we and our students deserve, she didn’t want to give us any of it.”
“In the end, you saved real lives and protected real people this past week just through the action itself,” Sharkey added before citing a spike in COVID exposures in the city’s public schools last week. “The numbers from last Monday and Tuesday show it.”