CHICAGO — Thousands of Chicago Public Schools teachers are slated to report to the classroom Monday — but the Chicago Teachers Union is asking its members to work remotely instead, escalating the battle over the district’s reopening plan and moving teachers closer to a potential strike.
The teachers union’s 600-member House of Delegates voted Wednesday to present a plan for collective action where teachers will refuse to work at schools but continue to teach online, union leaders said in a statement. The work-from-home action would come on the first day kindergarten through eighth-grade teachers are scheduled to go back to classrooms in advance of their students’ return Feb. 1.
A majority of rank-and-file teachers will have to vote to approve the plan for it to go into effect. Teachers will vote Thursday, Friday and Saturday, according to the union.
Some preschool and special needs students returned to classrooms last week after 300 days of learning from home because of the coronavirus pandemic. If the union leadership’s plan is approved, teachers who have returned to the classroom already would go back to teaching remotely, too.
Dozens of teachers who have refused district mandates to teach in person since last week have been locked out of their CPS emails and Google Classroom accounts, preventing them from teaching at all.
What union leaders are asking their members to do doesn’t fit the definition of a traditional strike. But if CPS officials lock the teachers out of the system Monday, making it impossible to teach remotely, the teachers union will strike Tuesday.
CPS Spokeswoman Emily Bolton said in a statement district officials remain committed to working with CTU leaders on a reopening plan and criticized the union’s move to refuse in-person teaching.
“CTU leadership wants to close schools that are already safely open to students, and cancel in-person learning for the tens of thousands of students who are relying on their dedicated educators to provide in-person learning in the coming weeks,” Bolton said. “Stripping tens of thousands of students of the opportunity for safe, in-person learning is not an option or a viable solution for families who have been planning to return since December.”
The union has vigorously fought CPS’ reopening plan, saying it harms school staff and families in communities already ravaged by the pandemic. District leaders and Mayor Lori Lightfoot have said the school reopening plan — which requires teachers to return but not students, who can still learn virtually — helps disadvantaged families and students who are falling behind due to remote learning.
District officials haven’t released figures on how many students are attending schools in person.
Many teachers have said CPS’ reopening plan puts their health at risk. During the first few days of in-person learning, two employees at McCutcheon Elementary School tested positive for coronavirus, putting eight school employees in quarantine. CTU leaders, teachers and their supporters routinely have called on the district to halt in-person learning until conditions improve in the coronavirus pandemic.
District leaders have pushed forward, however. On Tuesday, schools chief Janice Jackson said at a roundtable with parents who support reopening that the ongoing negotiations with the union must center around “how to reopen schools safely, not a debate around whether or not schools should reopen.”
In total, 77,000 of the district’s 355,000 students are expected to return to in-person learning this year.
“In the absence of an actual commitment on safety from CPS leadership, the best assurance we have for the safety of our students and school staff right now is to continue remote learning,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said in a statement following Wednesday’s vote. “Our members are resolved to continue working, teaching their students and doing so safely. Only the mayor can force a strike, and if it comes to that, that’s her choice. We choose safety.”
The Chicago Teachers Union waged an 11-day strike in October 2019, pushing for better pay, smaller class sizes and more special education teachers, among other issues. It was the longest strike in three decades.
Subscribe to Block Club Chicago. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.