CHICAGO — Negotiations to reopen Chicago Public Schools for more than 60,000 kindergarten through eighth graders failed to lead to a deal Sunday, setting the stage for Mayor Lori Lightfoot to lock out teachers who don’t show up — and for the Chicago Teachers Union to strike.
It would be the second teachers strike in the first two years of Lightfoot’s administration. The mayor and CPS insist teachers and students will be safe to return to in-person learning this week. But the union has demanded more safety protocols, and talks to get a deal broke down Sunday afternoon, with CPS and the union trading barbs on social media.
Parents should bring their preschool through eighth grade students back to school starting Tuesday, Lightfoot said.
But teachers must return to schools Monday unless they have an approved absence, Lightfoot said. Those who don’t will be locked out from conducting classes online at the end of the day, said CPS CEO Janice Jackson.
That action is expected to trigger a formal vote of the union’s House of Delegates, which could result in teachers striking the day after teachers are locked out, according to a union source.
“Those who do not report to work — and I hate to even go there — we’ll have to take action,” Lightfoot said.
CPS and CTU each blamed the other for negotiations stalling Sunday.
Lightfoot said she and the school district were prepared to talk to union leaders all day so they could get a deal done — but the CTU’s leaders kept saying they needed more time and didn’t appear for a scheduled meeting on Zoom. While lawyers for each side have talked, CPS and CTU leaders haven’t spoken since Saturday afternoon, Lightfoot said.
But CTU contended it was CPS that refused to negotiate. CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates tweeted a photo of her laptop screen in a Zoom meeting without Lightfoot or CPS leadership, writing, “Still here.”
CTU President Jesse Sharkey said while progress was made over the weekend on several issues, there were remaining items separating both sides. Those top issues are: exemptions for union members living with medically fragile people, health metrics for when schools could close and vaccinations for teachers.
“We’re stuck on some hard issues,” Sharkey said. “We are going to keep bargaining. … If there’s a will there’s a way.”
On Friday, the mayor warned “further action” against teachers if in-school learning does not relaunch as scheduled Monday. Talks progressed on Saturday with agreement on a variety of checklist items, but Sunday produced no deal.
Until Sunday, Lightfoot and Jackson refused to commit to locking out teachers who didn’t show up, as the district did earlier this month with dozens of teachers who defied district requirements to report to their school buildings.
As last week pressed on with no agreement, Lightfoot and Jackson did not back off from their insistence on opening Monday. The district is calling for preschoolers and students with special needs to go back to classrooms after four days of remote learning, and kindergarten through eighth grade students to return for the first time since March.
“We expect those teachers to be there for their students,” Lightfoot said.
“None of us want to go there and we shouldn’t have to,” Lightfoot said Friday. “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.”
It’s unclear if the district has footing to say the teachers are illegally refusing to work in their buildings. In Cicero, a judge last week rejected that school district’s attempt to have a similar work-from-home action from its teachers declared illegal, according to WBEZ.
Union leaders said in a Friday 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.
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 last 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 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 only about 20 percent of workers who live with a high-risk relative to work remotely.
The district also 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 protective equipment for specific jobs, improving ventilation standards in classrooms, establishing health and safety committees at school buildings, and making workspaces safer.
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 last 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.”