Arbitrator Rules That CPS Can’t Force Clerks To Report To School Buildings

Finding “insufficient evidence” that schools “are safe and healthful,” the ruling calls into question a bid to return for in-person classes.

COVID
Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
COVID
Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Arbitrator Rules That CPS Can’t Force Clerks To Report To School Buildings

Finding “insufficient evidence” that schools “are safe and healthful,” the ruling calls into question a bid to return for in-person classes.

School clerks shouldn’t be required to work inside Chicago public school buildings if it is feasible to work remotely, according to a ruling issued Friday by an arbitrator.

In her ruling, the arbitrator found “insufficient evidence that the board’s school buildings are safe and healthful for these employees to work in.”

Chicago Public School officials said they are “deeply disappointed” in the decision. “CPS has taken a comprehensive health and safety approach built upon the strongest available public health guidance,” said CPS spokesman Mike Passman.

Officials said, under the arbitrator’s reasoning, no workplace is safe. The school district is evaluating its options for next steps.

The decision is significant not just for the clerk and other staff, like technology coordinators, who have been working in schools. But it could have a bearing on whether Chicago public schools can resume some form of in-person instruction at the start of the second quarter, Nov. 9. If the school district cannot satisfy an arbitrator that it’s safe for clerks to return, then bringing thousands of teachers and students back into buildings seems unlikely.

The union contends school district leaders are setting the stage for a November return for a mix of in-person and remote learning. But CPS officials insist no determination has been made yet. They have yet to respond to the arbitrator’s ruling.

The ruling is in response to a complaint by the Chicago Teachers Union that challenged the edict that clerks, assistant clerks and technology coordinators work inside buildings, while teachers and most other staff are allowed to work at home.

Clerks have been going into schools since before the beginning of the school year. One of their primary jobs is registering students. School district officials contend this needed to be done in person.

But CTU lawyers pointed out that clerks had been able to do their jobs remotely all spring. Also, the union says just this week, COVID-19 cases at four schools have triggered some staff to have to quarantine. And a teacher at Funston Elementary School in Logan Square died of COVID-19 after going into her school the first week to distribute material to students, according to the union. It’s unclear where she contracted the virus.

In her decision, arbitrator Jeanne Charles wrote that it can’t be determined “that each school building is safe and healthful to work in” before concluding that “it is better to err on the side of allowing remote work, where feasible, since the extent of the inherently hazardous conditions presented by COVID-19 in each school building is unknown.”

The union contends the school district has not done enough to make the school buildings safe. They say clerks have filed hundreds of complaints about mask wearing and social distancing rules not being enforced and facilities not being disinfected or having adequate ventilation.

The arbitrator said the school district should permit clerks to work remotely if feasible and gave the union and the district two days to reach an agreement on this issue. If they can’t agree, the arbitrator will resolve any disputes.

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