AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Teachers in Chicago are on strike for a fourth school day today. The school district there is huge. It serves more than 300,000 students. Sarah Karp from member station WBEZ reports that while negotiations continue, students and families are scrambling to adjust to the unexpected break from class.
SARAH KARP, BYLINE: Teacher Alyssa Rafi is among hundreds of teachers and students who are picketing at Chicago's West Side Tuesday morning. She says she knows public school students will be hurt by the strike.
ALYSSA RAFI: But our children are hurt every day with things that are happening, and, like, I'm fighting for my students. They don't have a librarian. They don't have a full-time nurse.
KARP: Rafi is one of about 32,000 Chicago public school teachers and staff who have been on strike since Thursday. They're fighting for better pay and also for better working conditions, including smaller class sizes and more staff to support students. Mayor Lori Lightfoot has said she wants these things, too, but negotiations hit a hurdle on Monday, when Lightfoot asked teachers to return to work without a contract. She said beyond already agreed-upon offers, there was no more money for anything new.
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LORI LIGHTFOOT: CPS is recovering from severe financial instability just two years ago. It's still borrowing hundreds of millions of dollars a year to pay its bills.
KARP: Chicago Teachers Union president Jesse Sharkey responded on a picket line this morning.
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JESSE SHARKEY: It showed that although the mayor is saying, I want a quick agreement, really what she meant is if we could compromise on the remaining issues that it would look like justice in the schools.
KARP: Sharkey says the mayor's actions dashed his hope for a quick deal. Parents met the news with some resignation. CPS has been canceling classes but keeping buildings open for students who need somewhere to go. Gina Whalen has opted to keep her fifth grade son at home. She's been looking up lessons and planning activities for him.
GINA WHALEN: It's a little taxing on me.
KARP: On Tuesday, Whalen brought her son to see a circus at a South Side park. The mid-morning weekday show would usually be reserved for preschoolers. But on this day, lots of school-aged kids were there.
WHALEN: It kind of relieved us from the - all of the math work that we've been working on together.
KARP: She says if the strike drags on too long, she'll start looking at private schools. That's not to say that she doesn't support the teachers. Instead, she thinks the mayor could have done more to prevent it.
WHALEN: Sometimes, I guess you have to hold people's feet to the fire.
KARP: For high school students, the sacrifices are piling on. Soccer and tennis players in Chicago won't be able to compete in state playoffs because of the strike. Senior Brandon Smith says his homecoming dance was delayed because of the strike. Now he's worried that the rescheduled one will also have to be pushed back. Still, he says...
BRANDON SMITH: I don't think they should stop until - you know, until the demands are met, even if it's going to inconvenience, like, a little - like, a few things.
KARP: Smith has been joining the picket line with his teachers every morning. He says he really wants schools and students to be prioritized, and he thinks standing up for better schools will be a good experience to use in his college essays.
For NPR News, I'm Sarah Karp in Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.