The Chicago Teachers Union is insisting that Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the school district is required to bargain over the terms of remote learning — and they are asking the state to make this happen.
WBEZ has obtained a copy of a complaint the union submitted to the Illinois State Board of Education. It contends Chicago Public Schools violated emergency regulations, as well as state guidance documents, by not negotiating with them about remote learning. It cites state language that says “work connected to remote learning day plans shall be mutually agreed upon between employers and any collective bargaining entity.”
State Board of Education spokeswoman Jackie Matthews said the emergency regulations “have the force of law and can be enforceable.” She said ISBE has “taken up” the complaint and is “determining the path forward.”
District officials say the new state regulations do not “supersede” any existing agreements it has with the union. They also say the CEO is responsible for approving the remote learning plan, not the union.
“The district has been constantly working with CTU on remote learning efforts and other issues of great importance during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the school district said in a statement. “We are disheartened that the union is attempting to circumvent our collective duty to serve and educate hundreds of thousands of students and families during this emergency.”
The complaint challenges a decision made by CPS regarding special education students that teachers and staff say is particularly onerous. The resolution of this complaint could have significant consequences, not just for remote learning, but also for what happens as the school district charts a plan to reopen.
Union leaders insist they must have input into how school looks in the fall.
After living through an 11-day teachers strike in October that ended with a new contract deal, Lightfoot has taken a hard stance against doing more bargaining with the union.
“That is not going to happen,” Lightfoot said on Monday. “Of course as always, CPS is in regular dialogue with CTU [and] they will continue to be in regular dialogue with CTU. We forged an agreement last fall. We are not going to reopen the bargaining agreement.”
CTU President Jesse Sharkey said the union is not asking for the bargaining agreement to be reopened. It is only asking to have a say in remote learning plans and potential reopening plans.
“I view the mayor’s position as a power play, a foolish one, because the teachers in the classroom are exactly the people you should be listening to,” he said.
Sharkey said this is particularly important as the school district looks to the fall. He said it is his responsibility to make sure teachers and other staff are safe if they are to return to in-person instruction.
“It is not going to be the same as it looked last fall,” he said “So we are going to have to hammer some of it out and come up with a way that it will work for the people who go into the buildings everyday … And we expect to be at the table bargaining about that.”
Sharkey’s position is not unprecedented. The Los Angeles Unified School District bargained with its teachers union and came to an agreement over a number of remote learning issues, from grading to developing virtual individual education plans for students.
Special education at the heart of the dispute
The CTU’s complaint objects to a directive that case managers and teachers must create remote learning plans for all 50,000 students with disabilities in the school district. Plans are also required for another 10,000 students with medical issues. These students all already have individualized education or medical plans.
For students in special education, transitioning to remote learning has been especially difficult. The school district says it wants to make sure these students, like all students, are getting a high-quality education.
“As families make adjustments to adapt to remote learning, the district is committed to making every possible effort to support and educate all of our students,” a CPS official said in a statement.
But teachers and staff have balked at this edict. They say they are overwhelmed just trying to deliver instruction to students. They call this just another unnecessary burden.
“Let us do the instruction for our students, let us reach out to parents,” said Maria Moreno, a social worker who serves as financial secretary for the CTU. “There is not enough time in the day to do these remote learning plans.” She said it is “impossible” to do these plans on top of teaching, meeting, planning and reaching out to parents.
Moreno said the union and its members are especially upset because she said they met multiple times with the school district’s special education leadership and no one ever mentioned these plans would be required.
She accused the school district of demanding these plans to avoid getting into legal trouble for not delivering services promised in each student’s individualized education plan.
Mary Hughes, a parent and a special education advocate, agrees. She said she thinks CPS is only requiring these plans so it won’t have to make up services students are missing during the shutdown.
Hughes points out it took almost two months after the shutdown began for the school district to come out with guidance about how special education students should be educated.
For all that time, social workers, occupational therapists and other clinicians could not contact students one-on-one, and therefore students did not get those services. And still, she said, issues remain with how and when teacher aides can interact with students who need individual support.
“CPS should be working on reaching the kids who have fallen through the cracks right now and not worried about codifying a program that is already inadequate,” she said. “There is no good reason to do this right now.”