After a bitter fight, Chicago Teachers Union members have approved a reopening agreement with the school district that opens the door for in-person learning for elementary school students for the first time since the pandemic shuttered school buildings last March.
The reopening will be phased in, with the first small number of students returning on Thursday. For most students, the reentry date is delayed until March.
The agreement comes after months of difficult negotiations, as well as threats of virtual classroom lockouts and strikes. At one point, Mayor Lori Lightfoot declared after a day of fruitless negotiations, that the city got a “big bag of nothing” from the union.
Some 68% of voting teachers and staff ratified the agreement, the union announced early Wednesday morning. Some 80% of all members voted. In 2019, 81% of CTU members approved the contract that ended the 11-day teachers strike.
The split vote shows just how divisive school reopening is. Many teachers and staff still feel they are being asked to go into buildings prematurely. Others are comfortable and happy to go along.
It also reflects the deep disappointment many teachers and staff feel toward Lightfoot and the school district leadership, who they say should not have made them battle so hard to secure more safety measures. On Monday, 90% of the union’s governing body voted no confidence in the mayor and school district leadership.
In an emailed message to members, CTU President Jesse Sharkey made clear the deal didn’t go as far as the union wanted.
“This plan is not what any of us deserve. Not us. Not our students. Not their families. The fact that CPS could not delay reopening a few short weeks to ramp up vaccinations and preparations in schools is a disgrace,” he wrote.
While he called this “a stain on the record of this administration,” Sharkey said the compromises they were able to secure put them in a “vastly better position” than in November when the school district’s reopening plan was first announced.
In contrast, Lightfoot and CPS CEO Janice Jackson released a statement Wednesday morning saying, the yes vote “reaffirms the strength and fairness of our plan … our schools are fully prepared to safely welcome back students beginning tomorrow.”
They said all along that the safety measures they initially proposed would keep students and teachers safe. They have emphasized research showing that school-based COVID-19 transmission rates are relatively low.
The reopening agreement includes many things the union demanded. It delays the reopening for most students by a month. Students in kindergarten through fifth grade will return on March 1, followed by sixth through eighth graders on March 8. There is no plan yet for the return of high schoolers.
The agreement broadens COVID-19 testing, and codifies safety protocols, as well as provides a way to enforce them.
It lets staff who didn’t qualify for an official leave stay home. They won’t be paid, but they can keep their job and benefits. And it creates a dedicated line of vaccines for teachers and staff and includes a promise by the city that if vaccine supply increases, more will be set aside for CPS. Vaccinations began this week for the first group of staff going back and will open for more staff later this month.
But the school district held firm on some things. The roughly 3,200 preschool and special education students who started in-person learning in January, and had it disrupted during negotiations, get to go back this Thursday. CPS CEO Janice Jackson has said these are the most vulnerable students and insisted they return soon.
Also, the agreement does not tie reopening to vaccinations, though it prioritizes vaccinations for staff in the order in which they return. The deal also does not provide a firm benchmark for when the school district will revert back to all remote learning, as the union wanted.
It also does not do anything to change the remote learning schedule or curriculum, only promising to provide more headphones and devices. Some 70% of students will stay all remote until at least mid-April. And the students who are returning to the classrooms will only be there two days a week and remote the other three.
A national fight
Many school districts across the country are facing similar fights with their teacher unions over how to reopen schools and when to do it.
Many factors heightened the drama here in Chicago, including lingering friction between the union and the city leadership since the 2019 strike. Even after the strike was settled, tension remained between Lightfoot and the union.
For months, Lightfoot and school district officials insisted they did not have to bargain with the union over reopening, though they were willing to talk with them about health and safety issues. Over the past few months, their tone changed as they realized that, regardless of what the law says, if teachers and staff refuse to work in person it would be impossible to open schools.
The school district also might have felt more confident promising more to union, including increased testing and more safety measures, once the federal government passed another COVID-19 relief package. The school district received $800 million from the $900 billion package.
But, in the end, the mayor and school district also found themselves backed into a corner. Though they repeatedly threatened to block teachers from virtual classrooms for refusing to return, they knew that could trigger a strike that would force them to cancel class for all students. It became increasingly clear there was great peril in disrupting classes for 280,000 students, especially when only 67,000 were expected back for in-person classes.
The union also found itself in a difficult position. At a members meeting, Sharkey reportedly said he felt the deal was as good as they felt they could get without a strike. He has said he thought striking over reopening would be long and difficult.
Such a strike also could have been deemed illegal, and it was not clear how much support it would have had among members.