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Chicago kids back in class after 5-day standoff between teachers' union and officials

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Chicago students returned to school today after a standoff between the school district and the teachers union canceled classes for five days. The fight was over COVID safety measures as cases surge. After a week of uncertainty, parents and students are now crossing their fingers for a safe semester without disruptions. From member station WBEZ, Susie An reports.

SUSIE AN, BYLINE: Martha Rodea waved goodbye this morning to her third-grader and kindergartner before walking her pre-K daughter Lyla to her class at McAuliffe Elementary on Chicago's Northwest Side.

MARTHA RODEA: They're excited to go back to school. So they're like, yes, I miss my teachers.

AN: A teacher sprays sanitizer on Lyla's hands just before she enters her classroom. Rodea says she feels confident in sending her daughters back to school now because her family took the proper precautions.

RODEA: I know my kids are negative. They're vaccinated. So those are two things. And then the teachers agreed to come back.

AN: Like most families here, they've been battered by COVID twists and turns all this year. That includes individual classrooms going remote because of a COVID exposure. She says the past week was tough for a lot of families. Working parents had to scramble for child care and figure out ways to keep kids engaged. She doesn't blame the teachers for that. She thinks teachers were making reasonable requests following winter break, like supporting stronger COVID testing and embracing metrics for when schools and the district flipped back to remote learning.

RODEA: CPS should definitely help out their teachers. I mean, at the end, they're the ones in the front line, and they should have a say.

AN: Not all students returned to in-class learning today. Some classrooms remain dark because of high COVID cases. And some parents decided to still keep their kids at home, like Laquita Simmons, whose seventh-grade daughter Chastity is vaccinated, but she isn't sending her back to school quite yet.

LAQUITA SIMMONS: We are both asthmatic. So I just can't take the chance of us contracting it because I don't know how we will react to it.

AN: Simmons doesn't understand why school officials and Mayor Lori Lightfoot were adamant in their opposition to temporary remote learning. She notes that some of the teachers at Chastity's school are still at home.

SIMMONS: Some of them haven't even returned because they're sick or their children are sick and they're home taking care of their own children.

AN: Her plan now is to send Chastity back to school next week after she gets a negative COVID test.

SIMMONS: However, I'm still not OK with that decision, but I'm not going to interfere with her learning because I know at this time they're not going to allow her to do remote.

AN: High school student Journey Members says he doesn't think classes should have been canceled at all, and he's happy to be back. While concerned about the latest surge, he thinks it's manageable.

JOURNEY MEMBERS: As long as we have consistency in wearing masks and testing for who has COVID and who's not, I think we can have control over this

AN: Journey's mother, Zerlina Smith-Members, says she won't take sides between the district and the teachers union, but she's among many here who are frustrated by the stalemate that lasted a week and says this all could have been handled much better.

ZERLINA SMITH-MEMBERS: If we do go to remote learning or a shutdown again or a pause or a stop, that they figure out a way that the children can still get some type of education and not lock out the teachers.

AN: She says her son's grades took a hit during virtual learning, but as she looks ahead over the next several months of the school year, she's focusing on the need for consistency and says she simply doesn't want the learning to stop again.

For NPR News, I'm Susie An. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susie An
As a reporter for WBEZ's news desk, Susie produces content for daily newscasts and WBEZ's website. She also anchors, occasionally, delivering news on WBEZ. She directed WBEZ's Schools on the Line monthly call-in show. Her work has also been heard on NPR, CBC and BBC. Susie joined WBEZ as a news desk intern in September 2007. Prior to joining WBEZ, Susie worked at the Peoria Journal Star newspaper and worked as an acquisitions editor for Publications International,Ltd.