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As Chicago's mayor and teachers wrangle over omicron, classes are canceled

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Chicago public schools are canceled again today. The teachers union is still in a standoff with the school district over COVID-19 safety, specifically the question of whether it's safe to continue in-person learning during a COVID surge like the one happening now. Sarah Karp from member station WBEZ reports.

SARAH KARP, BYLINE: Annie Gill-Bloyer is spending this frigid morning in Chicago at a small demonstration outside the school her children attend. She desperately wants them to be able to go in to learn. The prospect of returning to remote learning makes her shudder.

ANNIE GILL-BLOYER: It was so bad. And the idea of going back to that at this point - like, this has been - there's been so much anxiety and tension just in our house this week, just the idea that there might be this return to that.

KARP: She says she doesn't think it's risky to send her children into classes, even as omicron surges. They're fully vaccinated, and she consented to have them tested once a week through the school district.

Parents like Gill-Bloyer are why Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot says she's backed by the, quote, "will of the people." She's rejecting the union's call to have remote learning for the next week and to put in place a trigger for when a COVID surge would flip the whole district. Lightfoot spoke Sunday on NBC's "Meet The Press."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")

LORI LIGHTFOOT: We've got an enormous amount of parent activism. They are writing letters, emails. They are protesting.

KARP: But it's actually hard to tell who has more support among parents, Lightfoot or the union. A lot of parents want a pause in in-person and a return to remote, especially right now, when COVID-19 seems so out of control.

Shekita Dickens (ph) says she called her children's school last week to ask if they were implementing extra safety measures. She was upset that they said no. So she's glad her children, one of whom is a paraplegic, aren't expected in classes right now. She doesn't understand why Lightfoot is canceling class entirely.

SHEKITA DICKENS: Kind of ticking me off because why not let them go to virtual e-learning? Kids can't even get on e-learning to get assignments from the teacher. So it's like, OK, the babies are the ones that are missing out right now.

KARP: Dickens and Gill-Bloyer share one opinion. That is that parents and their children are caught in the middle. And in the meantime, no education is going on in Chicago for 300,000 students.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah Karp in Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOMMY GUERRERO'S "IN MY HEAD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah Karp is a reporter at WBEZ. A former reporter for Catalyst-Chicago, the Chicago Reporterand the Daily Southtown, Karp has covered education, and children and family issues for more than 15 years. She is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. She has won five Education Writers Association awards, three Society of Professional Journalism awards and the 2005 Sidney Hillman Award. She is a native of Chicago.