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Dawes Elementary School reopened on Jan. 11, 2021 for the first wave of in-person learning in Chicago Public Schools. The teachers union and the school district are trying to reach an agreement so the reopening process can resume.

Manuel Martinez

Return Of CPS In-Person Classes Delayed Until Thursday While Negotiations Continue

Chicago Public Schools is putting off the start of in-person learning until at least Thursday to allow more time to land a deal over reopening with the teachers union.

In the meantime, teachers will not be locked out of their virtual classrooms, as CPS had threatened. Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS CEO Janice Jackson said they made the decision to let remote learning continue because they are seeing progress at the negotiating table. This, at least for now, relieves some of the pressure to get a deal done on Monday or risk a strike.

“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 a 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.”

It is also an about face from Sunday when Lightfoot and Jackson had threatened to block teachers and staff from their virtual classrooms if they didn’t report to buildings on Monday. Such a move would have triggered the union to gather its governing body where they could have voted to strike.

“We don’t want a lock-out,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said in a statement. “We want to keep working remotely as we bargain an agreement to return to our classrooms safely. And we’re one step closer to that goal today, because management has agreed to stay at the table rather than escalating conflict or locking out educators.”

Sharkey credited our “our members’ resolve on the ground” as the backdrop that “allowed us to make real progress at the bargaining table today on a number of the most difficult issues of this negotiation.”

While a strike still looms without a deal inked, both the mayor and the union have been reluctant to let it get to that point. A strike would shut down classes, both in person and virtual, for 280,000 students in district-run schools. Only charter schools would not be affected.

But this reprieve does not mean the standoff is over. The school district and union secured only one additional agreement on Monday. The school district said that on other outstanding issues, they have progress on a framework to address them.

But some of the thorniest issues remain unresolved. The union would like the school district to delay the restart of in person learning and then phase it in by grade bands, such as kindergarten through third grade. This, according to the union, would allow for more staff to be given accommodations to work from home, including those who live with someone who has a serious medical condition.

The mayor and school district have been emphatic that in-person learning get underway quickly. But they might be open to compromising as a phased-in timeline at least gets them a path to re-opening.

In addition, the union and school district have yet to agree on a public health metric to determine when the school district will revert to remote learning. The union wants to use a citywide positivity rate. The school district initially proposed a rate tied to how quickly cases doubled. It now wants to use a district case positivity rate.

The school district and the union have reached agreements on a number of issues, including health and safety protocols and safety committees to enforce those protocols.

Also Monday, the school district announced an agreement on school reopening with 9,000 support staff members, including lunchroom workers, custodians and security guards. Many of these staffers have been working in school buildings throughout the pandemic.

Under the agreement with SEIU Local 73, special education classroom assistants can work remotely during in-person learning if the student they are assigned to chooses to stay remote. In addition, if there’s a strike, security guards, custodians, and crossing guards are supposed to report for work.

As with the CTU, CPS also said it’s granting work-from-home accommodations to SEIU staffers with qualifying medical conditions and will prioritize requests from staffers who serve as the primary caregiver for a family member at elevated COVID-19 risk.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.

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