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Chicago Teachers' Strike: Citywide Scramble Begins as Classes Come to Halt

Mitch Smith and Monica Davey
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot meets with Chicago Public Schools students at McCormick YMCA, that were affected by the first day of a teacher strike in Chicago on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019. (Joshua Lott/The New York Times)

CHICAGO — Tens of thousands of public school teachers joined picket lines Thursday as a strike in the nation’s third-largest school district canceled classes across Chicago and left its new mayor, Lori Lightfoot, grappling with her most significant crisis to date.

For the families of Chicago’s more than 300,000 public school students, the walkout set off a chaotic scramble to find child care. City officials said that schools remained open, and that students would be fed three meals and be supervised by nonunion workers like principals. But attendance at some schools around the city appeared light and school bus service was suspended.

Parents said they were concerned about whether there would be enough supervision or activities at the schools. Many of them stayed home from work, hired babysitters or relatives, or signed up for “strike camps” that were hastily arranged at local sports facilities and community centers, where children played hangman and Uno on Thursday.

In one such center on the city’s South Side, 60 children — the maximum allowed — arrived for a day of activities like meditation and “gym games.” Organizers said they had started a waiting list for the days ahead, with the strike’s end uncertain.

The standoff between city officials and more than 20,000 Chicago teachers and thousands more school support workers had been brewing for months. Officials from the city and the union continued closed-door negotiations Thursday, even as a crush of teachers held a major rally through Chicago’s downtown business district in the afternoon.

Outside schools across the city, clusters of teachers and their supporters — many of them dressed in red union sweatshirts and scarves — held signs and handed out apple cider and coffee, waving to passing cars and answering questions from parents.

“We want to be in our classrooms with our babies, but we need to get them the class sizes and counselors and support that they need,” said Shemeka Elam, a third-grade teacher who stood outside Anna R. Langford Community Academy in the Englewood neighborhood. Motorists honked in support.

The strike in Chicago follows a wave of teacher protests and work stoppages nationwide, including in conservative states like West Virginia and Oklahoma, as well as in large, liberal cities including Los Angeles and Denver.

Across the country, teachers’ unions have demanded bigger budgets for both salaries and classroom supplies, smaller class sizes and additional support personnel, such as nurses and guidance counselors — the issues at the heart of the current conflict in Chicago. Along the protest lines Thursday, teachers stressed that their biggest complaints were not about their own salaries, but concerns about equity for all of the city’s public school students, including those on the West and South Sides, where schools have been closed in recent years.

Many parents voiced support for teachers — a Chicago Sun-Times survey conducted before the walkout suggested that nearly half of Chicago voters surveyed said they would support a strike — though some said they were scrambling to come up with alternative arrangements for their families, and worried about how long this might go on. They weighed what it would mean for college applications, for sports seasons, for daily routines.

On the city’s Far North Side, Eric Ndedi, the father of two boys — ages 14 and 9 — said he had kept his children home with their mother even though school buildings were open.

“It’s more safe than going when there is no teacher,” said Ndedi, 42, a ride-hailing driver who said he had been accustomed to teachers’ strikes while growing up in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but had not previously experienced one in the United States. “It’s better to stay at home.”

Ndedi, who moved to Chicago three years ago, said he did not know enough to say who was to blame for the strike, but that “it’s totally not good.” He said he expected his sons to spend the day watching television, and hoped they would be back in class Friday, although negotiations appeared unlikely to be resolved immediately.

Lori Novak, whose 6-year-old son, Daniel, spent his day in a neighborhood center program on the North Side, expressed support for the Chicago Public Schools teachers. “My personal feeling about all this, and the way I’m explaining it to my son, is that the teachers are trying to make all of CPS better,” she said. “I explain we’re in a very fortunate neighborhood where parents can rally and offset the difference.”

The strike is the first for Chicago’s school system since 2012, when teachers walked out for seven days. The union also held a planned, one-day walkout in 2016 to draw attention to contract negotiations and the district’s fiscal woes.

Jesse Sharkey, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, has said that he hoped for a short strike and saw a path for an agreement, but that the ball was now in Lightfoot’s court.

“It’s up to the mayor to get a fast contract settlement; she has the power to do that,” Sharkey said outside Peirce International Studies School on the North Side on Thursday morning. “But we are going to hold fast to a just contract settlement.”

Around the city, teachers told of schools without enough counselors to help children who had been exposed to difficult circumstances at home or violence in their neighborhoods. They spoke of overcrowded classes, some of them filled with children who needed extra attention. Dan Powers, a school psychologist at Avondale-Logandale Elementary, on the city’s Northwest Side, said his school had a nurse only one day a week, and no full-time librarian.

“I’d rather be in the school with all the kids around us,” he said, adding that he hoped a strike would put pressure on the city to make a deal. “I don’t want to be standing out here on the sidewalk.”

In recent days of negotiations, Lightfoot said, the two sides had made progress on the issues of staffing and class size, but other topics kept them apart.

“They gave us a number of issues in the last 24 hours that we could not bridge those divides — and some of which, we’re just not going to be able to get there,” said Lightfoot, who took office this year after an overwhelming electoral victory and pledge to improve life in less affluent neighborhoods far from Chicago’s gleaming downtown.

Union leaders have said they want written into their contracts the promise of smaller classes, more paid time to prepare lessons and the hiring of more school nurses, social workers, librarians and counselors. Other demands include affordable housing provisions and protections for immigrant students.

The city said it had offered teachers a 16% raise over five years, while union leaders called for increases of 15% over a shorter three-year term. Chicago school officials said that its teachers make, on average, about $78,500 a year. The starting salary for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree is $52,958, the school officials said.

Chicago’s overall population is split approximately into thirds — white, black and Latino — but its public school student population is less white. About 47% of the Chicago public school system’s students are Hispanic, 37% are African American and 10% are white. Some 76% of Chicago’s public school students are economically disadvantaged.

Lightfoot spent Thursday morning visiting community groups that had agreed to watch students whose parents needed child care, including a center on the West Side where she read a picture book to a roomful of public school students. One boy blurted out, “I saw you on TV!” after the mayor walked in the room.

Lightfoot cautioned parents that classes had been canceled indefinitely, though she also told reporters that an agreement might quickly be worked out. “We could get a deal today if there is a seriousness of purpose and a willingness on the other side,” Lightfoot said.

“Of course, no one wants a strike and it would be foolish to say it’s fine. We need to get this deal done,” Lightfoot said. She added, “Every day we’re out — that hurts our children.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2019 The New York Times Company