Chicago classes to restart Wednesday after the Chicago Teachers Union suspends remote work action

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Students in Patricia Orozco Rosas second grade math class at Azuela Elementary School in October 2021. Chicago Public School students will be heading back to the classroom after staying home since Jan. 5, 2022 during a standoff between the city and the teachers union. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
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Students in Patricia Orozco Rosas second grade math class at Azuela Elementary School in October 2021. Chicago Public School students will be heading back to the classroom after staying home since Jan. 5, 2022 during a standoff between the city and the teachers union. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Chicago classes to restart Wednesday after the Chicago Teachers Union suspends remote work action

The Chicago Teachers Union’s elected representatives on Monday night voted to suspend its remote work action and return to school buildings on Tuesday. Students will return on Wednesday.

The union’s 700-member elected House of Delegates approved the measure to suspend the remote work action, with 63% in favor. The tentative COVID-19 safety agreement still needs to be approved by the union’s more than 25,000 union members later this week.

An exhausted CTU president Jesse Sharkey described the deal as falling short of many of the union’s demands, but said they were proud the union took a stand.

“We wound up with something at the end of the day that was as much as we could get right now, and it was going to be enough,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said, noting that members were struggling with losing pay, being locked out of their computer accounts and being unable to reach their students.

This marks the end of a particularly nasty fight between the union and the school district. Mayor Lori Lightfoot cast it as a dispute over in-person and remote learning, and said she vigorously opposed returning to online school. Lightfoot said the union’s vote to go virtual and refuse to teach in person meant they were abandoning children and families who had suffered during last year’s long stretch of remote learning.

“Some will ask who won and who lost,” Lightfoot said Monday night. “No one wins when our students are out of a place where they can learn the best and where they are the safest.”

Union leaders insisted this was no ideological debate. Their members dislike remote learning and think it’s inferior to in-person learning. They said they simply wanted a concrete safety agreement with stronger safety measures and were only seeking a temporary pause of in-person learning in the midst of the surge. They argued that with so many staff members absent during the surge, it was also impractical to try to hold classes in person.

The union pointed to school districts across the country that have been forced to pause in-person learning due to staff shortages.

“This remote work action was about securing more safety for our school community and accountability that those safety measures would be there,” said CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates. “This is the second year in a row where we have had to take action, to get face coverings, to get a metric, to get the things that kids and other districts get.”

Gates, upping the ante in a war of words with the mayor, said: “This mayor is unfit to lead this city and she is on a one-woman kamikaze mission to take down our schools.”

In the end, the union succeeded in getting a safety agreement, which they wanted. But they did not secure many of the protections they were after. The mayor refused to relent in several key areas.

The mayor adamantly opposed a metric to trigger a districtwide flip to remote learning and the union did not get her to budge. But she and Chicago Public Schools leaders did agree to a metric to move individual schools to remote learning, which the school district and mayor adamantly opposed for months.

Individual schools can revert to remote learning during the surge if 40% of students are quarantined (50% once the surge subsides). Schools can also close if 30% of staff are absent related to COVID-19 or if substitutes can’t reduce the absence rate to below 25%. Under the agreement, school safety committees, which include teachers and other staff, will vote whether to close schools.

Currently, there is no mechanism to move an entire school to remote learning, even during an outbreak that sends most staff and students into quarantine.

The union shined a light on problems with the school district’s regular weekly COVID-19 testing program, including relatively low participation and a shortage of tests. In response to the union’s pressure, Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Friday announced he had helped the school district get 350,000 tests. CPS is in the process of buying them.

In the end, the union and the head of the Chicago Department of Public Health agreed to test 10% of students who are randomly selected. This will increase the current testing level for CPS.

The union wanted to make all students automatically eligible for testing and give parents the right to opt their students out. But Lightfoot strongly opposed that. Instead, the union agreed to help the school district try to get more students signed up. Stipends will be available to pay people to help families enrolled. Sharkey said the union had no choice but to accept this because the mayor was ideologically opposed to an opt-out system.

The union also highlighted a few other areas in the deal. Those include staffing contact tracing teams at every school with people from the school who already know the community. Union leaders described this as a “critical shift” in making contact tracing more effective.

The tentative agreement came as frustration grew increasingly tense on all sides. Many parents sided with the union in favor of remote learning during the surge, while others wanted their children back in school buildings immediately. Many parents are fed up with labor disputes.

“I’m glad that we’re hopefully putting this behind us, and looking forward, but, there does come a point where enough is enough — three work stoppages in three years?” Lightfoot said Monday night. “Of course people are frustrated. Why wouldn’t they be? I’m hopeful that this is the end, at least for this school year.”

Lightfoot said on ABC-7 News Monday that she had not expected the Chicago Teachers Union to hold a work stoppage. She called it “politicizing the surge.” However, Sharkey has regularly pointed out that he has been to many Chicago Board of Education meetings this year where he publicly asked for the school district to reach a safety agreement with the union. He said the agreement was needed to avoid the situation CPS found itself in for the past week.

The two sides have been meeting regularly since the last safety agreement expired this summer. Lightfoot said this week that those meetings show her team was intent on reaching an agreement, but that the union was not being responsive.

However, even CPS CEO Pedro Martinez admitted that it only became clear a safety agreement was needed as COVID-19 cases surged.

One of the last issues resolved at the table was whether to make up the days missed during the shutdown, which would allow teachers to recoup pay lost when schools were closed. The teachers union, of course, wants them made up. The union said that question has been left up to Martinez.

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

Mariah Woelfel contributed reporting. You can follow her on Twitter at @MariahWoelfel.