CHICAGO – With Chicago teachers poised to go on strike for the first time in a quarter century, parents spent Sunday worrying about how much their children's education might suffer and where their kids will go while they're at work.
Teachers said they would walk off the job Monday if no deal was reached with the nation's third-largest district by midnight on issues such as pay, job security and evaluations. Parents have been waiting nervously for word of progress as city and union officials send messages that are discouraging one day and encouraging the next.
School officials have said they would open more than 140 schools between 8:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. if there is a strike so that children can eat lunch and breakfast in a district where most of the 400,000 students receive free meals.
The district asked community organizations to provide additional programs for students, and a number of churches, libraries and other groups plan to offer day camps and other activities. But it's not clear how many families would send their children to the added programs.
"They're going to lose learning time," said Beatriz Fierro, whose daughter is in the fifth grade on the city's southwest side. "And if the whole afternoon they're going to be free, it's bad. Of course you're worried."
Working parents such as Eric Ferrer said opening buildings for four hours won't help them much because they have to be at work all day. Ferrer, a cook, said his children can stay home Monday with his wife, who works in a store. But if a strike went more than one day, they would have a problem -- one that he sees no way to solve.
"My wife is off tomorrow (so) we can keep them at home," said Ferrer, as he sat in a McDonald's restaurant on the city's Southwest Side with his wife and their 8-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter.
"She works the next day (and) so do I," he said.
Chicago Public Schools has offered teachers a four-year contract with raises of 2 percent a year. The union says that's unacceptable, especially after Mayor Rahm Emanuel last year canceled a previously negotiated 4 percent raise, citing budget problems.
The union is also concerned about raises based on teacher experience and education; new evaluations; health benefits; and how a longer school day for students is being implemented.
Parent Silvia Flores, who works as a housekeeper, said she's lined up a neighbor to watch her 6-year-old son between 12:30 p.m. and the late afternoon when she gets off work. But she still doesn't like it.
"I appreciate it, but he's going to be just watching TV, not learning," she said. "I don't want that because he's going to get behind (in his studies)."
Other parents said that even if they could drop their children off for four hours and pick them up, they might not because they don't know who will be watching them.
The district won't open every school, so some students would have to go to unfamiliar buildings. Plans also call for children to be supervised by non-union workers and central office employees. And all that change is coming just a week into the school year, when children, particularly the younger ones, may still be a little bit scared about leaving home all day.
"I'm not going to stick my kids in a place with strangers they don't know and with (employees) I don't know," said Doug Danby, a real estate developer. "I'm going to be dragging them to construction sites."
Beth Starrett, a single mother, had similar concerns, though she said she hadn't made up her mind about whether she would send her 8-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter to the elementary school down the block from their home in the city's Pilsen neighborhood.
She said her children know a strike is possible because their teachers have talked about it, and her son, like many in the city, was sent home with a packet of homework to do if there was no school. Since she works nights, she figured her children could do their work at home during the day.
But she expressed frustration that despite Emanuel's talk about children getting a better education because of the longer school day he pushed through earlier this year, the only schooling her children might get for a while would come from that packet.
"They got a longer school day for this?" she asked.