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Chicago Teachers Union Leaders Send Schools Reopening Plan To Full Membership For A Vote

The deal to reopen schools comes after weeks of escalating tensions between the Chicago Teachers Union and Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS CEO Janice Jackson.

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 — An agreement between Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union to avert a strike and send thousands of students back to classrooms is closer to being finalized after the union’s governing body approved the plan Monday, setting up a vote from the entire membership.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS CEO Janice Jackson announced Sunday they and CTU had reached a deal to reopen schools, with some students returning as soon as this week. But the union quickly followed that announcement to say the deal had not been finalized and would need to be reviewed and approved through its “democratic process.” 

On Monday, 85 percent of those who voted in the 600-member House of Delegates voted to send the plan to its full membership for a final vote tomorrow.

The union’s rank-and-file members will vote to ratify the deal in the coming days, potentially ending tense negotiations between union leaders, Lightfoot and CPS officials on how to safely reopen classrooms to nearly 70,000 CPS students whose families opted into in-person learning.

Negotiations stalled and looked to break down twice since union leaders instructed all teachers to work remotely until a deal was reached. For two weeks, the two sides remained unable to bridge the divide on a timeline for reopening, vaccinations for union members and whether teachers who care for family members with severe health risks would be permitted to teach remotely.

Credit: Mina Bloom/Block Club Chicago
A CPS teacher greets her students while working on the sidewalk in Avondale in protest of the district’s reopening plan.

The tentative deal offers a phased-in reopening, bringing back smaller groups of students and teachers in waves over the next month.

Preschoolers and special needs students who had returned to classrooms Jan. 11 before the district reverted to remote learning amid the dispute could go back to school again starting Thursday, Feb. 11. About 5,300 students from that group chose in-person learning this year but the only attendance data released by the district shows an average of about 3,200 actually came to classrooms each day during that first week of learning.

K-5 teachers and staff would come back Feb. 22, and their students would start March 1. Sixth to eighth grade teachers and staff would come back March 1, and their students would return March 8.

While the majority of CPS students have opted to continue with virtual learning, families once again will have a chance to opt-in to in-person learning before the fourth quarter of the school year starts in Spring, Jackson said.

“We are ready to reopen,” CPS CEO Janice Jackson said Sunday. “I truly believe that every educator wants what’s best for students, and we all want the same thing.”

The deal also means 2,000 special education and pre-K staffers will be offered vaccinations starting this week. There also will be CPS vaccination sites only for district staffers where the city hopes to vaccinate 1,500 people each week. Those locations will open later this month, Jackson said.

The tentative deal allows for CTU members who serve as primary caregivers for family members at increased risk for severe illness due to COVID-19 to receive permission to teach remotely, if documentation can be provided. Those who don’t receive an accommodation and are not fully vaccinated may take an unpaid leave of absence while maintaining their full benefits through the third quarter. 

The district will revert to remote learning for two weeks if the seven-day rolling average COVID-19 test positivity rate increases for seven consecutive days, the rate for each of the seven days is at least 15 percent higher than the previous week, and the citywide positivity rate is 10 percent or higher on the seventh day.

Students would return to in-person learning after the 14 days or when the positivity rate no longer meets those metrics, whichever occurs later.

CPS will pause in-person learning for classroom groups when there has been one confirmed COVID-19 case. Individual schools can be closed for 14 days if three or more new cases emerge in at least three different classrooms and the district can’t rule out the cases were linked to in-school transmission.

On Sunday, Jackson reiterated her desire to see all students return to classrooms this year, but said she’d agreed to consult with the union on how to safely return high school students. 

Lightfoot on Sunday said the tentative deal represented a “moment for each of us to reflect and to heal.”

“We need to do this for our city, for our communities, for our families, and most importantly, for our children.”

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.

Monday’s vote came one day after former CTU president Karen Lewis died at the age of 67. In a statement, the union said Lewis “did not just lead our movement. Karen was our movement.”

“She bowed to no one, and gave strength to tens of thousands of Chicago Teachers Union educators who followed her lead, and who live by her principles to this day,” the statement said.

The mayor, Jackson and the teachers union have been at odds about reopening for months. A plan to reopen city school in the fall was abandoned following intense pushback from CTU and some parents.

The disagreement intensified in the winter as city leaders moved ahead with their plan to reopen schools in January over the objections of the union.

The district brought back preschoolers and special needs students and their teachers in Jan. 11. 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 for nearly a month.

The district had intended to bringing back kindergarten to eighth grade teachers Jan. 25 and students Feb. 1. 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 over the past several days with little indication the two sides were moving closer to an agreement. The public disagreement 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 at their school buildings.

But Lightfoot and Jackson 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.

Toward the end of the week, the tenor shifted again as Lightfoot insisted she was done with the back-and-forth and a deal needed finalized right away. Lightfoot and Jackson delivered what they called they “last, best and final offer” to CTU late Thursday. Union leaders rejected it Friday and said Lightfoot had “walked away” from the negotiating table. The mayor and district responded by renewing their pledge to lock out teachers, place them on AWOL status and withhold pay, before unexpectedly announcing a deal Sunday morning.

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