CHICAGO — Mayor Lori Lightfoot and public schools chief Janice Jackson celebrated as some students returned to classrooms Thursday, the first day kids are back after officials struck a deal with the Chicago Teachers Union to reopen schools.
The deal was called a “disgrace” by CTU President Jesse Sharkey, who said it didn’t go far enough to protect teachers, students and school communities during the coronavirus pandemic. The union said 67.5 percent of its members who voted approved of the plan, and the majority of CPS families are opting to keep their students at home for now.
But Lightfoot and Jackson, speaking at a news conference Thursday morning at William Brown School of Technology, said they’re already beginning discussions with the union over their next goal: reopening high schools.
“The goal really is to have a return to in-person instruction as a school system,” Jackson said.
At another point, Jackson said bringing back high school students to in-person learning is officials’ “top priority.”
The CPS CEO said the district has already started talks on how to do that with the CTU, and they’ve vowed to make the process more transparent. They’ll use the same framework they built when deciding how to reopen schools for younger students, she said.
Though Jackson hasn’t laid out an estimate for when older students could be back, she said earlier this week she’s eager to see high school students return “as soon as possible.”
Jackson also said the district will soon announce how families will be able to opt in for in-person learning when CPS’ fourth quarter starts.
Officials have acknowledged it will be trickier to bring back high school students since, among other things, they take a wider variety of classes. Those schedules make it hard for students to stay within “pods” where all teens take the same classes and, if a member of a pod is exposed to COVID-19, individual pods can quarantine.
And the deal to bring back younger students was already challenging. The school district’s and union’s negotiations were tense, with much public back-and-forth. For a period, the district threatened to lock out teachers who wouldn’t come back to schools — and the union was poised to vote on a strike if that happened.
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.
Teachers for kindergarten through eighth grade were supposed to return by Feb. 25, with students whose families wanted in-person learning returning Feb. 1. Instead, a deal to reopen schools wasn’t reached until Sunday, and CTU’s members didn’t officially approve it until midnight Wednesday.
Even then, Sharkey sharply criticized Lightfoot and her administration in a letter to union members, noting the group’s delegates passed a vote of no confidence in the mayor and CPS earlier in the week.
“Let me be clear. This plan is not what any of us deserve. Not us. Not our students. Not their families,” Sharkey wrote. “The fact that CPS could not delay reopening a few short weeks to ramp up vaccinations and preparations in schools is a disgrace.
“Yet the mayor and CPS leadership were willing to do even further harm to our school district to maintain that posture. That’s how much they care about real safety for students, their families and the educators and school staff who support them.”
The deal provides for a phased-in reopening, bringing back smaller groups of students and teachers in waves over the next month. The families of nearly 70,000 students have opted in for in-person learning.
Preschoolers and special needs students who had returned to classrooms Jan. 11 before the district reverted to remote learning amid the dispute started going back to school Thursday. 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.
Teachers and staff for kindergarten through fifth grade will return to classrooms Feb. 22, and their students will start March 1. Sixth to eighth grade teachers and staff will come back March 1, and their students will 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.
The deal also means 2,000 special education and preschool 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 rolling, seven-day average 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 classrooms and the district can’t rule out the cases were linked to in-school transmission.
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