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No Deal On Reopening Schools As Teachers Union Says CPS, Mayor Walk Away From Negotiations

As talks break down, district leaders say teachers of preschool and special needs students will be locked out and not paid if they do not report to work Monday.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS CEO Janice Jackson visited teachers at Drake Elementary School, 2710 S. Dearborn. It was the first time many teachers returned to classrooms since schools were first closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Chicago Mayor's Office

CHICAGO — Chicago Public Schools and Chicago Teachers Union leaders remain unable to reach an agreement to reopen schools for thousands of students, as the union rejected what Mayor Lori Lightfoot and schools chief Janice Jackson called their “last, best and final offer” and city leaders revived their warning to lock out teachers who don’t show up to classrooms next week.

The prolonged fracture between the two sides comes at the heels of increasingly bitter rhetoric that has led to talks breaking down twice and the looming potential of teachers walking off the job for the second time in Lightfoot’s tenure.

Lightfoot and Jackson said their team received a counterproposal from the CTU on Thursday afternoon, and they “responded with our last, best and final offer.” Later Friday, they said in a statement teachers of preschoolers and special needs students will be locked out of district systems by the end of Monday and not be paid if they do not work from their school buildings.

Students would be expected to return Tuesday.

“On Monday, Pre-K and cluster teachers and staff without an approved accommodation or pending ADA accommodation will be required to report to classrooms. Pre-K and cluster teachers and staff who fail to report will be deemed absent without leave (AWOL) and access to CPS systems will be terminated at the close of business Monday,” Jackson and Lightfoot said in a statement.

Union leaders previously have said teachers should prepare to strike if the district follows through with locking them out and preventing them from teaching virtually.

Earlier Friday, CTU leaders said in a statement the mayor and district leaders “walked away from the bargaining table again” and are refusing to budge on several issues, including health metrics for when schools and the district should close to contain coronavirus spread, vaccinations for teachers and staff, not sanctioning teachers who have refused to work in-person in recent weeks and remote work permissions for employees who are high risk or live with someone who is.

“This is a pandemic, and that means our schools have to get every single mitigation protection right if we’re serious about keeping children and adults safe,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said in a statement. “We’re deeply disappointed that the mayor has chosen to stop negotiating and instead move to lock out educators and shut down schools rather than work out our differences.

“Our stance hasn’t changed: We are willing to work and we are willing to negotiate the safest agreement for our students, their families and all stakeholders in our school communities.”

Lightfoot and Jackson have not directly responded to the union’s claims that city leaders abandoned negotiations.

“Since June, our bargaining team has met with CTU leadership more than 80 times, including daily meetings for the past month,” they said in the statement. “We’ve been patient, and moved our deadlines again and again out of respect for our employees, students, and families. We have put everything on the table to reach a deal that protects our students and staff, and supports the families who need an alternative to remote learning.”

Credit: Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times/Pool
Mayor Lori Lightfoot looks on as Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson speaks to reporters after visiting preschool classrooms 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.

Teachers union leaders have contended schools are not safe for students or staff at this stage of the pandemic, and it is not necessary to require thousands of teachers to work in person when the majority of students have opted for virtual learning anyway.

Lightfoot and Jackson have maintained schooling can be safe with certain precautions — citing studies from the Chicago Department of Public Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — and classrooms need to be open for the families who chose that option. 

The district moved ahead with bringing back preschoolers and special needs students and their teachers in early January over the objections of the union. Dozens of teachers refused mandates to work from their school buildings and were locked out of their district email and Google Classroom accounts, preventing them from teaching at all. They also were place on “absent without leave” status and were not being paid unless they showed up or received a valid exemption to work remotely.

CTU leaders and parents have said some of those teachers have remained locked out.

The district had intended to bringing back kindergarten to eighth grade teachers starting last week and students on Monday. But as the two sides gridlocked over several issues, the union instructed teachers not to report to their school buildings and prepare to strike if CPS refused to let them work virtually

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Elementary teacher Alli Bizan talks to students as teachers set up to teach remotely outside Suder Montessori Magnet Elementary School on the Near West Side in solidarity with Chicago Public School pre-K and cluster educators who returned to the classroom Jan. 11, 2021.

That compelled CPS to revert to remote learning for everyone, even for the preschool and students with special needs, who’d already returned to classrooms.

Talks continued last week with little indication the two sides were moving closer to an agreement.

By the weekend, the public spat led to both sides accusing the other of sabotaging negotiations when a deal was within range and Lightfoot threatening to lock out teachers again if they did not report to work Monday.

But Lightfoot and Jackson changed their tone and backed off their pledge to sanction teachers working virtually. They agreed to allow teachers and students to continue remote learning all week, accounting for a previously scheduled day off for students Friday, while the two sides continued negotiations.

The tenor shifted again Thursday, as Lightfoot insisted she was done with the back-and-forth and a deal needed to be finalized right away.

District leaders say the two sides have reached agreements on certain health and safety protocols at school buildings, contact tracing, safety committees and ventilation standards.

The union also is pushing for a phased reopening of schools rather than a district-wide relaunch of in-person learning. The district proposal would bring teachers and students back gradually over the next three weeks.

  • Pre-K and Cluster Programs: 
    • Monday, February 8: Teachers, and staff return  
    • Tuesday, February 9: Students return  
  • Kindergarten — Grade 5:
    • Tuesday, February 16: Teachers and staff return 
    • Monday, February 22: Students return  
  • Grade 6 — Grade 8:
    • Monday, February 22: Teachers and staff return 
    • Monday, March 1: Students return  

The union wants returns to be contingent upon vaccination schedules, not bringing back everyone until the second week of March, according to the Sun-Times.

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