CHICAGO — In-person classes for Chicago Public Schools students have been called off for Tuesday and Wednesday — but the district has averted a teachers strike for now.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS CEO Janice Jackson had threatened to virtually lock out teachers who didn’t report to schools Monday, as officials are trying to reopen schools for more than 60,000 kindergarten through eighth grade students whose parents have opted in to in-person learning. The Chicago Teachers Union planned to vote on a strike if the lockout happened.
But in a Monday evening announcement, Lightfoot and Jackson said the lockout and potential strike had been averted as negotiations continue.
CPS students will continue to learn virtually Tuesday and Wednesday.
“We have reached another important milestone today in our efforts to provide in-person learning for our students in the Chicago Public Schools system,” Lightfoot and Jackson said in an emailed statement. “We have secured agreement on one other open issue and made substantial progress on a framework that we hope will address the remaining issues.
“We are calling for a 48-hour cooling off period that will hopefully lead to a final resolution on all open issues. As a result of the progress we have made, and as a gesture of good faith, for now, teachers will retain access to their Google Suite. Students will remain virtual Tuesday and Wednesday and we will update the CPS school community as there are further developments.”
In tweets, leaders of the teachers union said they had a “positive day of bargaining” Monday but there’s still some work to be done to reach an agreement.
Lightfoot and Jackson wanted to have teachers for kindergarten through eighth grade return to schools last week so students who opted in for in-person learning could come back Monday. District and city leaders have said reopening schools is safe.
But the teachers union has demanded more safety protocols, saying reopening schools now, when the coronavirus pandemic is ongoing and vaccinations aren’t widespread among teachers, poses a risk to students, teachers and school communities.
The two sides have been unable to broker a deal, and they’ve traded barbs on social media.
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.
But CTU contended it was CPS that refused to negotiate Sunday. 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.”
Until Sunday, Lightfoot and Jackson refused to commit to locking out teachers who didn’t show up, as the district did earlier in January with dozens of teachers who defied district requirements to report to their school buildings.
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. 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 teachers for kindergarten through eighth grade did not report to their school buildings last week.
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.
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 percent 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.”
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