The Chicago Teachers Union plans to gather Wednesday afternoon to consider a resolution that could lead to what amounts to a strike authorization vote by the union’s 25,000 members later this week, sources tell WBEZ, opening the door for the second Chicago Public Schools strike in two years.
But unlike the strike in the fall of 2019, this strike talk doesn’t appear automatically destined to result in a walkout. Both the union and the school district seem intent on reaching a deal to avoid a strike that could leave upwards of 280,000 children unable to even attend remote classes in the middle of a pandemic.
CPS CEO Janice Jackson on Tuesday said the school district was “incredibly interested” in an agreement with the union on reopening. A small group of students came back last week and as many as 70,000 elementary students are due back Feb 1. And CTU President Jesse Sharkey said the union would be happy to be “walked away from the ledge.” He has said repeatedly that he would rather strike a deal than move forward with a work stoppage.
Still, the union is taking steps to deploy its most potent weapon because it says many of its members feel unsafe returning to school buildings at this time. As the first group of students returned last week, hundreds of staff members have refused to report as required. According to the last available data, 83 of them were blocked from teaching remotely and had their pay docked as discipline.
To try to protect staff working in schools now as well as the next wave due back on Jan. 25, the CTU on Wednesday is expected to consider a resolution calling on staff to refuse to report to school buildings, according to a CTU source. Staff would offer to continue to teach remotely.
If the school district locks out staff who refuse to teach in-person classes, then the resolution would authorize 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.
But the school district might not immediately lock defiant staff out. Students won’t be back in buildings for another week and could use that time to try to work out an agreement.
If the CTU moves forward with this resolution on Wednesday, its members would vote on it later this week. The mass refusal could take place as early as Monday, according to sources. By state law, the union needs two-thirds support from its membership to hold a strike, but this would be such an unusual strike it is unclear if that criterion holds.
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 Tuesday. “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.