No classes, parents scramble as Chicago teacher strike looms

FILE - In this Oct. 14, 2019 file photo, members of the Chicago Teachers Union and SEIU Local 73 march through the Loop after a rally, three days before the unions could walk off the job on strike. Chicago's public schools have canceled classes after the teachers' union president announced that his bargaining team will recommend teachers vote to go on strike. Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019, that classes would be canceled Thursday after determining that she can't accept the Chicago Teachers Union's demands, which she says would cost the city $2.5 billion it can't afford. (Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times via AP)
Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks during a news conference at Chicago City Hall on Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019. Lightfoot said classes would be canceled Thursday after determining that she can't accept the Chicago Teachers Union's demands, which she says would cost the city $2.5 billion it can't afford. Talks are expected to continue Wednesday. (Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune via AP)
FILE - In this Oct. 14, 2019 file photo, members of the Chicago Teachers Union and SEIU Local 73 march through the Loop after a rally, three days before the unions could walk off the job on strike. Chicago's public schools have canceled classes after the teachers' union president announced that his bargaining team will recommend teachers vote to go on strike. Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019, that classes would be canceled Thursday after determining that she can't accept the Chicago Teachers Union's demands, which she says would cost the city $2.5 billion it can't afford. (Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times via AP)
In this Oct. 14, 2019 photo, Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey, center right, and Vice President Stacy Davis Gates, center, left, march with members of the CTU and SEIU Local 73 through the Loop after a rally, three days before the unions could walk off the job on strike. Chicago's public schools have canceled classes after the teachers' union president announced that his bargaining team will recommend teachers vote to go on strike. Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019, that classes would be canceled Thursday after determining that she can't accept the Chicago Teachers Union's demands, which she says would cost the city $2.5 billion it can't afford. (Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times via AP)
Chicago Teachers Union president Jesse Sharkey speaks during a press conference at union headquarters in Chicago on Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019, after contract negations with the city ended for the day. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced on Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019 that the city's public schools will be shut down on Thursday, one day ahead of an expected teachers' strike. (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune via AP)

CHICAGO — Parents and community groups are scrambling to prepare for an expected strike by Chicago teachers that prompted city officials to preemptively cancel Thursday's classes in the nation's third-largest school district.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said during a news conference that the district's 25,000 teachers represented by the Chicago Teachers Union would almost certainly walk out on Thursday based on union leaders' reaction to bargaining talks this week.

Union members representing each school are set to meet Wednesday afternoon to make a final decision, but union members have already said they will recommend moving forward with a strike.

Chicago teachers' last major strike was in 2012, and the district kept some schools open for half days during that seven-day walkout. District officials said this time they will keep all buildings open during school hours, staffed by principals and employees who usually work in administrative roles.

Breakfast and lunch will be served, but all after-school activities and school buses are suspended in the district serving more than 300,000 students.

June Davis said if teachers strike, she would likely send her 7-year-old son, Joshua, to his usual elementary school — Smyth Elementary on the city's South Side where almost all students are low-income and minority.

Davis, 38, said she would otherwise have to take her son to his grandmother's in a southern suburb, requiring an hourlong trip on a regional bus line.

"Everybody's hoping they will come to some kind of agreement, find some compromise," Davis said.

Janice Jackson, the district's CEO, said earlier this week that more than 80% of families with students in Chicago's public schools are considered low-income.

"We have parents, who if they don't go to work, they don't get paid," Jackson said. "So, we need to make sure that there is a place for their children to go so that they can continue doing what they need to do to support their families."

Talks are continuing Wednesday but Mayor Lori Lightfoot preemptively announced that classes on the following day would be canceled, saying she wanted to give parents more time to plan.

A clearly frustrated Lightfoot said the city has not only offered a 16% pay raise over the 5-year contract, but the city has also agreed to put language in the contract that addresses "enforceable targets" on class size and increasing staffing levels for positions such as nurses, librarians and social workers — items the union said were critical.

She said the union's demands would cost an unaffordable $2.5 billion per year.

"Without question, the deal we put on the table is the best in the Chicago Teachers union history," said Lightfoot. "Despite all this, the Chicago Teachers Union intends to forge ahead with a strike."

Union leaders, though, disputed Lightfoot's characterization of the city's willingness to concede to their demands on several issues, including class sizes.

"CPS' current class size offer falls far short of what's needed to address the sweeping scale of the problem," they said in a statement.

Lightfoot said the city agreed to make substantial changes on some of the union's top priorities, but its negotiators responded by issuing additional demands, including some she deemed unacceptable.

"The union is still demanding to shorten instructional time by 30 minutes in the morning," she said. "We won't do that. We will not cheat our children out of instructional time."

Before heading into a downtown law firm for bargaining talks Wednesday morning, union vice president Stacy Davis Gates said there is a "gross disconnect" between Lightfoot's comments and what negotiators have put in writing.

"To say that you have offered a proposal that respects what we are asking for, to say you've bent over backward .... it's absolutely ridiculous," Davis Gates said.

Community organizations have been preparing for days to welcome students, ranging from a $100 per day camp for elementary school kids at the Shedd Aquarium to all-day programs run by the Boys & Girls Club of Chicago and accessible for a $20 annual membership fee.

Mimi LeClair, president of the Boys & Girls Club of Chicago, said a strike is particularly difficult for single parents and those whose jobs have inflexible schedules.

"It's a horrendous dilemma, deciding between likely losing their job or having their paycheck docked when they rely on every penny or leaving their children home alone," LeClair said.

The city's public libraries also are planning programs for students, along with a network of churches and community centers that are part of the city's Safe Haven program intended to give kids a safe place during the summer months particularly on the city's south and west sides.

The YMCA of Metro Chicago expects highest demand for its all-day programs for children between the ages of 5 and 12, who are too young to stay home alone but whose parents may oppose sending them to schools unstaffed by teachers.

"Real life still happens," said Man-Yee Lee, a spokeswoman for the organization. "Parents still need to go to work and their kids still need somewhere to go."

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