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CPS Tells Parents To Keep Students Home Again Friday As Deadlock Between District, Teachers Union Continues

The two sides are at odds about reopening schools as the district’s start date for thousands of students rapidly approaches.

A preschool student raises her hand during class at Dawes Elementary School at 3810 W. 81st Pl. on the Southwest Side, Monday morning, Jan. 11, 2021. Monday was the first day of optional in-person learning for preschoolers and special education students with complex disabilities in Chicago Public Schools.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times/Pool

CHICAGO — Chicago Public Schools told parents across the district to keep children home again Friday, marking the third straight day students who returned to classrooms are being asked to stay home.

District leaders made the announcement at 8 p.m. Thursday. CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union remain gridlocked over the plan to reopen schools and the threat of a teachers strike is on the table. With still no agreement in place, the district is quickly running up against its target date to bring kindergarten through eighth grade students back to class.

All preschoolers and kids with special needs will stay home for virtual learning Friday.

Sticking points between the two sides continue to include vaccinations of staff, testing, work-from-home accommodations and health metrics for when schools should reopen or shut down during the pandemic, according to the union.

The union wants all staff to be vaccinated before being required to return to work, weekly testing for staff and testing for students in neighborhoods with the highest infection rates. CTU also wants people to be able to work from home if they are high risk for severe coronavirus complications or who live with someone who is.

CPS has agreed to some increased testing of staff and students and work-from-home status for high-risk employees, according to the union. But the district’s plan would allow about 20 percent of workers who live with a high-risk relative to work remotely.

The district also has agreed to prioritize vaccinations for staff in hardest-hit communities but the union said no details have been offered. The two sides also remain at odds about improving remote learning, forgoing simultaneous instruction and not disciplining Pre-K and special education teachers who defied district demands to work in person.

The two sides do seem to be aligned on providing PPE for specific jobs, improving ventilation standards in classrooms, establishing health and safety committees at school buildings, and making workspaces safer.

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, Thursday and Friday, 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.

In an attempt to bring the two sides together, a coalition of principals publicized a pilot plan this week that would have small groups at a time return to in-person learning, prioritizing vaccinations for those staff members, then gradually reopening more schools if they can show classroom learning is succeeding.

The idea behind the plan is to acknowledge a “one-size-fits-all” reopening plan may not work and that some schools are better prepared to reopen than others.

Related: Chicago Principals Suggest CPS Pivot To ‘Phased-In’ School Reopening Plan, But Mayor Still Focused On Feb. 1

Despite no agreement between the two sides, Lightfoot and CPS CEO Janice Jackson insist the district still plans to reopen schools for in-person learning for kindergarten through eighth grade students starting Monday.

“It’s still our intent to have students return on Monday,” Lightfoot said Thursday afternoon.

But the majority of those teachers are 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. In Cicero, a judge this week rejected the city’s attempt to have a similar work-from-home action from its teachers declared illegal, according to WBEZ.

“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, 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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