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Lightfoot Demands Chicago Schools Reopen Monday — Or Action Will Be Taken Against Teachers

The district is pushing to open schools Monday for kindergarten to eighth grade students, but there remains no deal between the two sides.

A preschool student listens as her teacher talks 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
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CHICAGO — With the school week finished, Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union still have not reached an agreement on reopening schools, and Mayor Lori Lightfoot said there will be further action against teachers if in-school learning does not relaunch as scheduled on Monday.

Lightfoot and CPS CEO Janice Jackson were set to provide an update into negotiations late Friday afternoon, then postponed a press conference as the two sides continued talks. Finally the pair announced after 9 pm Friday the two sides remain gridlocked, forcing talks to go into the weekend if the district is stay on course for the second phase of reopening Monday.

“Another day has passed and the CTU has not agreed to anything,” Lightfoot said at a press conference. “We and CPS kept fighting for our children and being a voice and advocate for those parents who just want options. And in this day, the CTU leadership has failed and left us with a big bag of nothing.”

Credit: Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times/Pool
Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson visit a preschool classroom 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.

As the week pressed on with no agreement in sight, Lightfoot and Jackson have not backed off from their insistence on opening Monday. The district is calling for preschoolers and students with special needs to go back to classrooms after three days of remote learning, and kindergarten through eighth grade students to return for the first time since last March, Lightfoot said.

“We expect those teachers to be there for their students,” Lightfoot said.

If teachers do not show up, Lightfoot said the district will have to take some action, though she did not specify what that would be.

“None of us want to go there and we shouldn’t have to,” Lightfoot said. “We reached a comprehensive agreement that pays teachers well and brought more equity into our schools just in 2019. Why are we here again? We need the CTU leadership to bargain with us in good faith and get a deal done. It is doable. We can get it done tonight, tomorrow, Sunday. Our children deserve nothing less. If we do not, it’s totally on the CTU leadership,” the mayor said.

Some preschool and students with special needs had returned to classrooms Jan. 11 over the objections of union leaders, who contend in-person learning at this stage of the pandemic isn’t safe for students, staff and their families. Lightfoot and CPS leaders have insisted schools present low risk of coronavirus transmission and in-school learning must be made available to the families who want it, particularly those who have struggled with remote learning.

As the two sides battled over these issues, the union instructed teachers not to report to their school buildings starting Wednesday and prepare to strike if CPS refused to let them work virtually. That compelled CPS to revert to remote learning for everyone, even the students who’d initially been in class.

The union’s work-from-home directive also meant the majority of kindergarten through eighth-grade teachers did not report to their school buildings this week in anticipation of their students’ return Monday.

Of the union’s move to refuse working in schools, Lightfoot said there had been “three weeks of success” with in-person learning, “which is precisely why CTU leadership blew it up and created chaos.”

But even as the mayor intimated action against teachers, she once again would not say Friday if the district would move to designate the work-from-home action illegal or move to lock teachers out of email and virtual learning platforms if they don’t show up.

It’s unclear if the district has footing to say the teachers are illegally refusing to work in their buildings. In Cicero, a judge this week rejected that school district’s attempt to have a similar work-from-home action from its teachers declared illegal, according to WBEZ.

With the late night announcement, both sides traded accusations of sabotaging talks when a deal was in sight.

Lightfoot said the two sides have resolved several issues but union leaders have refused to put them in writing. Unions leaders, tweeting as the mayor delivered her remarks, said they were close to a deal until the mayor’s team scuttled it.

Union leaders said in a statement they intend to continue working remotely until they can agree on a safe return to schools.

“Unfortunately, rather than build on the progress that has been made between our Union and the Chicago Public Schools bargaining team, Mayor Lightfoot is disrupting every possible settlement, compromise or partnership. The educators in the room were close to reaching an agreement. The boss stepped in at the 11th hour and blew it to pieces,” CTU leaders said in a statement.

Asked if Lightfoot and Jackson personally have joined the table, the mayor said they have offered to do so but “we’ve got to see some actual progress.”

Earlier this week, a group of principals suggested a phased-in reopening approach where a small group of schools gradually relaunches in-person learning. Should that group prove it could operate classroom learning safely and effectively, the district could broaden the effort to include more schools.

It’s unclear whether that proposal is something the two sides have considered during negotiations.

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

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

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.

Another back and forth between the two sides has revolved around how many students are showing up for school and in what areas of the city.

The only attendance figures CPS has provided are for the first week of school. The district projected in December around 6,500 students would be attending classes in person. By the time school started, about 1,100 students switched to virtual learning.

Of that smaller group expected to attend — about 5,300 students — an average of 3,189 kids showed up each day, according to the data.

Additionally, an average of about 1,500 kids who initially chose in-person learning switched to virtual during the first week, data shows. Sixty-one kids made the opposite choice — planning to learn virtually but switching to in-person classes instead.

All told, an average of 3,250 students were back in classrooms each day for the first week, accounting for about 1 in 5 of all the children eligible to return. Another 2,169 students were absent.

Union leaders have said the overwhelming number of students choosing virtual learning means the district should focus on providing more resources to improving those systems and supporting students learning from home. They say it also should require fewer teachers having to work from school buildings.

The district long has contended remote learning disproportionately hurts Black and Latino students but provided little demographic information that breaks down what percentages of students from each racial group were attending remotely or in person.

Data released this week showed the majority of white families reported to school buildings as expected, while nearly half of Black families chose to stay home. About 62 percent of Latino students — the district’s dominant demographic — reported to campuses roughly in line with the districtwide average of 59 percent.

But because the district is predominantly Black and Latino, more than 80% of students who returned to in-person learning are students of color. Additionally, larger proportions of Black and Latino students didn’t show up to school at all that first week.

“They have disengaged,” CPS Chief Education Officer LaTanya McDade said Wednesday. “Unfortunately we see similar racial disparities across student groups.”

Related: A Troubling Trend In Chicago’s School Reopening: More Students Disengaged

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