A day without teachers: 32,000+ educators in Chicago went on strike. Here's what happened

Grace Hauck and Erin Richards, USA TODAY

CHICAGO – Students flocked to camps, friends' houses, safe havens and bowling alleys on Thursday as about 32,000 Chicago Public Schools teachers and aides went on strike in the nation's third-largest school district.

While parents scrambled to find places for their children, attitudes toward the strike — at least those expressed publicly — remained split. Many said they wanted teachers to be paid well and wanted the schools to have more support staff in the form of nurses and school psychologists, a key demand of the union.

But people also said they respected that Mayor Lori Lightfoot has a responsibility toward taxpayers. Community leaders said they respected CPS CEO Janice Jackson, who was previously a principal in some of Chicago's toughest neighborhoods.

"We understand both sides," said Wilonda Cannon, a senior director at Breakthrough, a community center in the East Garfield Park neighborhood that provided daytime educational activities for about 20 kids Thursday. "We just want them to come to an agreement soon."

Negotiations continued Thursday morning and afternoon between city and union leaders, but no deal was reached. Teachers are expected to be back on the picket lines at 6:30 a.m. Friday.

After rejecting the Chicago Teachers Union’s demands, which led to the strike call, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced classes for about 360,000 students would be canceled until the walkout ends.

CPS strike: What else you need to know

On Day One of the strike, public workers and kids rose before the sun to picket outside their schools, chanting, holding posters and cheering at buses and cars that honked as they drove by. They donned hats, gloves and scarves for the 44-degree morning and warmed up with doughnuts and coffee.

Outside Chalmers Elementary on the city’s West Side, some held signs saying: "Speed limit 30, not a class size for young children" and "Dumbledore wouldn’t let this happen." 

Maggie Sermont, 32, a CTU school delegate and middle school special education teacher, has taught for seven years at Chalmers, which serves mainly low-income students and students who are experiencing homelessness.

"This is a difficult neighborhood to work in," she said. "We have a lot of churn and burn and teachers going out the door. No one is working at Chalmers Elementary school for the pay. We really want to help the kids, and we need wraparound services, clinicians, specials teachers."

In the afternoon, educators across the city converged downtown for a mass demonstration near the Board of Education headquarters. Thousands of teachers clad in red and support staff in purple continued their chants, including, “Lori Lightfoot, get on the right foot!” and "Get up! Get down! Chicago is a union town!" They banged buckets, clanged bells and shook tambourines as they marched through downtown.   

Kaleb Autman, a supporter of the strike, leads teachers and SEIU supporters at Breakthrough, a non-profit for those affected by poverty. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot later read a book to children at the center.

Buildings remained open

Per orders from CPS, buildings remained open on a normal bell schedule for children to attend – staffed by administrators and other non-union employees. Meals were served. But only about 6,700 children attended CPS schools Thursday, according to an official estimate that afternoon. That's less than 2% of the approximate 360,000 children enrolled in the district. 

Shani Blackwell, a CPS mother, said disruptions in the school week are particularly challenging for her 8-year-old son. They live in the Austin neighborhood on the city's West Side.

“I’m in the weird space of like – I support the teachers, but it’s a hardship for me," Blackwell said. "My son is a special education student, so while the district offered to keep the schools open, there won’t be the personnel there that he needs."

Blackwell, 43, works in higher education research. She said she supports teachers, but she also said her son needs his routine.

Blackwell said her son was spending the day with his grandmother, who usually does workbooks with him.

Some students joined their parents on the picket line.

For Rebecca Eden, this strike gave her 14-year-old triplets a day to relax: One went bowling. One had a friend over. One played video games. Eden, who lives in Chicago’s northside neighborhood of Lakeview, said this year feels different than the last teachers' strike in 2012.

“I am verbally and in my heart with the teachers, but it feels more like they’re being social justice warriors,” Eden said. “It feels more like an activism strike than a strike for what they’re legally allowed to ask for."

Negotiations stall — again

The first major walkout by Chicago teachers since 2012 came after 10 months of talks over pay and benefits, class sizes and teacher preparation time.

Labor leaders say the city has failed to offer a fair contract that pays for more support staff in the form of nurses, librarians, counselors and school psychologists.

Union leaders say they also want enforceable limits on class sizes, which have swelled to the high 30s and mid-40s in some schools.

"I’m striking because class size does matter," said Victoria Winslow, 29, a fifth-year first grade teacher at Chalmers Elementary. "Our support staff deserves a livable wage, and we only have a nurse one day a week – are we supposed to stop teaching and become nurses?"

Lightfoot said the city has offered a 16% raise for its 25,000 teachers.

"We're not moving any further on the money, because we can't," she said Thursday.

The mayor proposed a $7.7 billion district budget in August, up about $117 million from the 2019 budget.

Union leaders say that other critical demands have not been inserted into the contract language, such as a commitment to put a nurse in every school. They want promises in writing. They also want the contract to address other issues that affect the city's students, such as affordable housing.

Lightfoot said the union's total requests would add an additional $2.5 billion to the CPS annual budget, which she called "completely irresponsible."

A matter of resources

That's not the way educators see it.

Middle-school reading teacher Melissa Strum, who was on strike with her colleagues at Rudy Lozano Elementary School Thursday, said her school located near apartment buildings in Wicker Park gets fewer resources than schools surrounded by single-family homes and multi-million dollar condos.

“We have a social worker only three days a week, and her caseload is about 80 to 100 students,” Strum said as the sun rose over Lozano. “We only have a nurse two days a week. We should have one every day.”

Among the striking educators were 7,500 school support staff, joining teachers on the picket lines in their own strike for a new contract.

Members of CTU and SEIU march in downtown Chicago on Oct. 14, 2019.

"We wear a lot of hats, and we need to be compensated," said Natasha Jackson, 38, a special education classroom assistant represented by Service Employees International Union.

Dian Palmer, president of SEIU Local 73, visited picket lines at several schools across the city.

“We’re not looking to harm anybody," she said. "We’re looking to lift our members out of poverty.”

Community sites welcome students

Many community centers that specialize in after-school programming offered daytime education and activities to students who dropped in Thursday. The century-old Hyde Park Neighborhood Club hosted 60 students – its maximum capacity – from across the South Side.

Several other centers visited by USA TODAY, however, were under capacity. Breakthrough, which has five locations to serve those in poverty in East Garfield Park, was staffed to accommodate 90 children but only had about 20 by late morning. 

Lightfoot visited the center and read “A Bad Case of the Stripes” to a small group of students.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot reads a book to children at Breakthrough, a nonprofit that partners with those affected by poverty. Chicago Public Schools teachers officially began a strike on Thursday after failing to reach a new contract deal with the city. About 300,000 CPS students and their families are affected by the strike, as well as about 25,000 teachers in Chicago, Illinois, Thursday October 17, 2019 RICKWOOD/USATODAY NETWORK/MILWAUKEEJOURNALSENTINEL.COM (Via OlyDrop)

Earlier, she dropped into a YMCA center to check in on children participating in the Y’s “Schools Day Out” program. Across the participating Y sites, about 305 kids attended the program, which included a full day of curriculum and athletics.

About 2,500 Chicago Park District workers initially planned to join the walkout with teachers and school staff workers, but their bargaining unit on Wednesday announced they had reached an agreement with City Hall.

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Xian Franzinger Barrett, a special education teacher at Telpochcalli Elementary School in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood, said teachers in Chicago believe their children deserve the same equitable support in schools that children get in suburban Chicago. 

He said that is especially true since CPS is receiving more state money this year because of a 2017 change in the state's education funding formula.

"We don't understand the response that this is not financially feasible," he said. "We see the money there, and we think our children are as deserving of it as anyone else's children. That's why you see such a passionate confrontation here."

Education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation does not provide editorial input.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Chicago teachers union strike: 32,000 strike in Chicago