CHICAGO — Mayor Lori Lightfoot is demanding Chicago Public Schools and its teachers union get a deal done before the end of Thursday to reopen schools.
In-person classes were canceled all this week as the school district and Chicago Teachers Union continued to negotiate a deal to reopen schools during the coronavirus pandemic. Officials had hoped to make a deal, but Lightfoot said Thursday morning there’s yet to be an agreement.
There must be one by the end of the day, though, she said.
“Failing grades, depression, isolation and so much more — that is why we must get a deal done and get it done now without further delay,” Lightfoot said at a news conference. “So let’s do it, CTU. Let’s do it today. Let’s get a deal done.”
Lightfoot didn’t say what steps the district would take if no deal is made, but said not getting one isn’t an option.
“I’m not gonna be [in the same position Friday]. Time’s up. Runway — done,” she said. “We need a deal today.”
Officials from the city and from the CTU have been at loggerheads as they try to reopen school buildings for more than 60,000 kindergarten through eighth grade students whose parents have opted in to in-person learning.
Lightfoot, CPS chief Janice Jackson and other officials have said CPS has taken steps so schools can reopen safely — and they’ve said remote learning isn’t working for all students.
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 union issued an open letter to parents Wednesday morning, blaming CPS for failing to include them in reopening plans from Day One.
“Unlike school districts across the country, and unionized charter schools in Chicago, CPS for a long time refused to bargain regarding its reopening plan. Yes, we have had 70 meetings, but for 10 months, we never had a willing partner on the other side of the table,” union leadership wrote. “It wasn’t until educators voted overwhelmingly to take collective action that CPS leadership showed some urgency about negotiating the critical details of its plan.”
Teachers for kindergarten through eighth grade were supposed to return Jan. 25 so students could come back to in-person classes Monday.
The CTU urged teachers not to return to in-person learning. Lightfoot and Jackson threatened to virtually lock out teachers who didn’t report in to schools, and the CTU appeared poised to vote on a strike.
But city officials backed down from those threats Monday, instead saying they’d take a 48-hour “cooling off” period.
Negotiations on Monday and Tuesday weren’t productive, though, Lightfoot said, and on Wednesday there was “a series of steps backward.”
“We waited for hours last night — hours — and still did not receive a proposal from the Chicago Teachers Union leadership,” Lightfoot said. “And as of this morning, we are still waiting — but to be clear, not patiently, not anymore.”
Lightfoot said the two sides have made agreements in five areas, but they still don’t have a “comprehensive agreement.” She said the city is “waiting on the CTU.”
Throughout the negotiations, the sides have traded barbs and accused the other of holding up a deal.
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 preschool 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.
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