Chicago Teachers To Vote Whether To Reject In-Person School And Move Toward A Potential Strike

The union agreed Wednesday to ask members to vote to collectively refuse to report to schools as CPS gears up for more in-person learning.

WBEZ
Staff at McPherson Elementary School on the North Side welcome back preschoolers on Jan. 11, 2021 as part of the first wave of students returning for in-person learning in Chicago Public Schools. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
WBEZ
Staff at McPherson Elementary School on the North Side welcome back preschoolers on Jan. 11, 2021 as part of the first wave of students returning for in-person learning in Chicago Public Schools. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Chicago Teachers To Vote Whether To Reject In-Person School And Move Toward A Potential Strike

The union agreed Wednesday to ask members to vote to collectively refuse to report to schools as CPS gears up for more in-person learning.

The Chicago Teachers Union on Wednesday evening decided to ask its 25,000 members to vote on a resolution that rejects in-person learning until the union comes to an agreement with the school district.

The resolution, which more than 80% of the union’s delegates supported, opens the door to Chicago’s second teachers strike in two years. Members can vote electronically Thursday until Saturday evening.

This ratchets up the pressure on the school district to finalize a reopening agreement with the union even as both sides seem intent on avoiding a strike. A walkout could leave upwards of 280,000 children unable to attend even remote classes in the middle of a pandemic.

The resolution before teachers and staff will ask them, in response to a “serious unfair labor practice,” to collectively refuse to report to school buildings starting Monday. Staff would offer to continue to teach remotely. A relatively small group of staff are working in buildings now with a few thousands students, and a larger group of staff are required back on Monday to prepare for elementary school students to return on Feb. 1.

Here’s where a potential strike comes in: If the school district starts locking out staff who refuse to teach in-person classes, as they already have, the resolution authorizes a strike until a deal can be reached. That means all CPS staff, including high school teachers who have not been called back yet, would not log into their virtual classroom.

“Our members are resolved to continue working, teaching their students and doing so safely,” CTU President Sharkey said in a statement. “Only the mayor can force a strike, and if it comes to that, that’s her choice. We choose safety.”

However, the school district might not immediately lock defiant staff out. Students won’t be back in buildings for another week and that time could be used to try to work out an agreement.

In a statement released late Wednesday, CPS spokeswoman Emily Bolton said that in more than 60 bargaining sessions with the union so far, “we have agreed to the CTU’s safety demands every step of this process,” and that the district remains committed to reaching an agreement,

But, she added, “Stripping tens of thousands of students of the opportunity for safe, in-person learning is not an option or a viable solution for families who have been planning to return since December.”

Despite Wednesday’s developments, the appetite for a walkout appears weaker now than in the buildup to the last strike in 2019.

CPS CEO Janice Jackson on Tuesday said the school district was “incredibly interested” in an agreement with the union on reopening. Meanwhile, CTU President Jesse Sharkey on Tuesday said the union would be happy to be “walked away from the ledge.” He has said repeatedly that he would rather make a deal than move forward with a work stoppage.

Still, the union is taking steps for a walkout because it says many of its members feel unsafe returning to school buildings at this time and that the implementation of CPS’ safety protocols have been uneven and inadequate. As the first group of students returned last week, hundreds of staff members have refused to report as required.

One of the biggest conflicts between the teachers union and the school district is whether staff could return voluntarily, as the union wants. The school district is mandating it now. On Tuesday, both sides said there may be a middle ground.

“I think that that’s a place where I feel like we can come to more of a compromise,” Jackson said. “Somewhere that goes beyond, ‘This is what everybody has to do’ to ‘people can choose to come to work or not.’ We just can’t have [staff just choosing not to come to schools].”

Jackson also acknowledged the reality that the school district needs teachers to return if the reopening is to continue. Yet she emphasized any deal must include the continuation of in-person learning.

Sources said the union is now suggesting a flexible staffing plan in which the third of teachers who have health concerns for themselves or their family members would be allowed to work remotely. Then other staff who want to be remote would be allowed if they are not needed at their school.

The union points out that most students chose not to return for in-person classes. Only about 30% of preschoolers and special education students said they would come back, and many principals said far fewer actually showed up. The school district has promised to release student attendance data this week.

But even if this major staffing issue is worked out, the union and school district still need to work out some other safety issues. Jackson has repeatedly said that the school district has met all safety demands of the union, unless the demands contradict what the Chicago Department of Public Health is recommending.

The union still wants a COVID-19 case positivity limit that, when surpassed, would trigger school closings. The school district says this is not recommended and is unwilling to do it.

In addition, the union wants some way to hold the school district accountable for making sure protocols are properly enforced.

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