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Chicago Teachers Will Work Remotely Monday, Defying CPS Orders. If District Locks Them Out, They’ll Strike.

Thousands of CPS teachers were supposed to report to the classroom Monday, but they'll work remotely instead. The decision comes as many have expressed concerns about spreading coronavirus.

After CPS locked teachers out of their virtual classrooms for not returning to in-person learning for fear of their health, educators gathered outside Board of Education President Miguel del Valle's home to challenge the situation in Belmont Cragin on Jan. 13, 2021.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

CHICAGO — Thousands of Chicago Public Schools teachers will work remotely Monday, defying the district’s orders to return to the classroom.

About 71 percent of Chicago teachers voted to approve union leadership’s plan to refuse to work at schools but continue to teach online, the union announced Sunday. About 86 percent of teachers voted on the plan. The work-from-home action comes on the first day kindergarten through eighth-grade teachers are scheduled to go back to classrooms in advance of their students’ return Feb. 1.

Some preschool and special needs students returned to classrooms Jan. 11 after 300 days of learning from home because of coronavirus. Those teachers will go back to teaching remotely, too, the union said.

Following the union’s announcement, CPS officials they will push back the start date for K-8 teachers from Monday to Wednesday, hoping the extra days will help the two sides reach an agreement on reopening. But the district still is requiring teachers for preschoolers and special cluster programs to report to work Monday.

CPS said the delay was part of an agreement with the union, but CTU rejected that claim, saying in a tweet the district “unilaterally” moved the start date and the union has “no agreement with the district on any terms.”

If district leaders lock the teachers out of the online teaching system at some point, making it impossible to teach remotely, they will strike, Chicago Teachers Union officials said Sunday.

The Monday action to refuse to return to classrooms doesn’t fit the definition of a traditional strike, CTU leaders have said. CPS officials have called it “an illegal strike.”

In response, CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said CPS leaders have “said that about every single collective action” the union has waged.

“The only person that can cause a stoppage is the mayor and her team at CPS if they lock our members out of Google meets. That’s it,” Davis Gates said.

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.

CPS spokeswoman Emily Bolton previously criticized the union’s move to refuse in-person teaching.

“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,” Bolton said.

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.

Teachers have held multiple protests to oppose CPS’ reopening plan since some teachers have returned to the classroom.

Two weeks after some students returned to class, CPS finally released figures on how many students are attending schools in person Friday night amid mounting pressure from the union. About 19 percent of eligible CPS preschool and special needs students showed up for in-person learning in the first week of resumed classes, several hundred fewer than the district initially predicted.

With the union threatening to strike, the district also announced they would start vaccinating its teachers and other employees in mid-February.

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.

As of Friday, at least 18,651 people have died from COVID-19 in Illinois, and another 1,919 deaths are probably related to the virus, according to the state.

District leaders have pushed forward, however. Last week, schools chief Janice Jackson said at a roundtable with parents 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.”

Chicago Department of Public Health leaders have affirmed the district’s stance schools are safe to reopen, citing a published study showing low level of virus transmission among local Catholic school students. Commissioner Allison Arwady defended the district’s reopening plan Thursday.

“We’ve not seen cases in CPS out of range of what we’ve seen in the community, broadly,” Arwady said at a briefing on vaccines. “I remain very confident in the protocols that are in place.”

CPS officials have said 77,000 of the district’s 355,000 students are expected to return to in-person learning this year.

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.

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