CHICAGO — Chicago Public Schools told parents across the district to keep children home again Thursday, marking the second day students who had returned to school have been asked to stay home.
The announcement comes as the Chicago Teachers Union and the district remain deadlocked over the plan to reopen schools and the threat of a strike is on the table. With the two sides unable to reach an agreement Wednesday, the district made the move to keep preschoolers and kids with special needs home again for virtual learning.
The return to all-virtual classes on Wednesday came three weeks into CPS’s phased reopening of schools.
Some teachers and staff began returning to the classroom in early January, over the objections of the union. But as the opening moved forward and disagreements persisted between the union and district, CTU leaders told all members Tuesday they should work from home Wednesday and Thursday and prepare to strike if CPS refuses to let them continue teaching virtually.
On Tuesday, the union called for a mediator to broker an agreement with the district.
“Currently, Chicago’s schools lack access to adequate testing and tracing programs, proper PPE, necessary room ventilation and sanitization, and priority vaccination of educators and school support staff,” CTU officials said in a statement.
On Wednesday, Lightfoot said the city is open to using a mediator during negotiations — and had suggested using one in November.
“We’re absolutely open to a mediator, but we want to make sure there is a seriousness of purpose that this is not gonna delay the negotiations,” Lightfoot said.
Lightfoot said CPS and the CTU met about 40 minutes each day this week to negotiate, but those talks need to be more “aggressive.” Dr. Allison Arwady, head of the Chicago Department of Public Health, was brought in Wednesday to “address some of the issues around vaccines.”
“I think we have an obligation to the parents and to the students to move aggressively. We need more time at the bargaining table,” she said.
Despite no agreement between the two sides, Lightfoot said Wednesday the district still plans to reopen schools for in-person learning for kindergarten through eighth grade students starting Monday. But with those teachers not reporting to work in school buildings, it’s unclear how that plan could go forward without an agreement.
District figures show 6.2 percent and 4.4 percent of K-8 teachers reported to work at their school buildings Monday and Tuesday, amounting to a few hundred out of more than 10,000 teachers expected back each day. On Wednesday, as the entire district reverted back to remote learning, 13.6 percent of K-8 teachers worked from their schools, the district said.
About 72 percent and 66 percent of Pre-K and special education teachers reported to their buildings Monday and Tuesday, falling off to about 28 percent Wednesday.
Lightfoot would not say if CPS would lock out teachers should they continue to work from home, saying officials should talk about how to move forward rather than lockouts. Previous staff attendance figures provided by the district included information about how many teachers were placed on “absent without leave” status, meaning they could not access district materials to teach remotely and would not be paid until they reported to work.
But the district’s figures Wednesday included no information about how many teachers were considered AWOL.
“Every single day what we see is our case rates going down. Our positivity rates lower. We should be talking how to get a deal done,” Lightfoot said.
Lightfoot and other city officials have said CPS now has three weeks of data to show school reopening is safe. That data affirms other studies, including one by CDC officials released Tuesday, that show schools do not contribute to a significant amount of coronavirus transmission.
“It’s one of the things we have the best data on now,” Arwady said. “We would not be moving ahead with school reopening … without reams of data that is based on the public health science.”
The union says teachers want to continue teaching remotely since 81 percent of CPS preschool and special needs students — the students eligible to return to classrooms so far — have opted to continue to learn remotely. But teachers who have refused to show up despite a CPS mandate have been locked out of their virtual classrooms.
“We are willing to keep teaching, but CPS has said they will lock us out,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said in a statement. “There are many options that we’ve proposed to staff classrooms where children are returning without putting every single member of the school community at increased risk — including thousands of educators with families at heightened risk from COVID.”
At issue between the union and school district is increased virtual accommodations for teachers who do not have underlying health conditions, and an increased effort to vaccinate school staff. Lightfoot said the city is working on those issues but other city frontline workers also have a claim to vaccine access.
The city and union have met on the issue of school reopening since the summer and have met almost daily for the past two weeks, Lightfoot said.
“I am deeply disappointed that after all this time, all these sessions, all the work … no agreement has been reached,” Lightfoot said earlier in the week. “This is despite three weeks of daily evidence” that schools are safe.
The teachers union contests that schools are safe, saying there have been about 60 cases of positive coronavirus cases this month alone. Asked about that Tuesday, CPS CEO Janice Jackson said that figure sounded correct but she and Arwady reiterated they always expected for there to be some transmission. The key, they said, is responding quickly to help isolate or quarantine when cases do arise to prevent coronavirus from spreading any further.
Sharkey said the union wants a phased approach to bringing teachers back, essentially letting those who want to continue teaching from home do so and bringing back teachers comfortable with in-person instruction or educators who have been vaccinated.
Teachers were initially told by the district to return to classrooms this week in advance of the Monday return of about 70,000 kindergarten through eighth-grade students. However, about 61 percent of Chicago teachers voted to approve union leadership’s plan to refuse to work at schools while continuing to teach online.
The district then said teachers could return Wednesday instead, but negotiations continued Tuesday night and no resolution was in sight.
Some preschool and special needs students returned to classrooms Jan. 11 after 300 days of learning from home, but only about 19 percent of kids in those grades showed up, the district said.
In a letter to teachers, Jackson said preschool and special needs teachers should still report to work in person Wednesday and ignore the union’s advice.
“CTU’s directive is disappointing to us, as it prevents thousands of students from safely going to school as they have been for the past three weeks and as CPS and the union continue to meet every day to reach a resolution that prevents further disruption to student learning,” district leaders said in a statement.
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