Chicago Teachers Union unveils new proposal that involves measures already rejected by city officials

The mayor responded immediately: “Students need to be back in person as soon as possible,” the mayor said in a statement. “We will not relent.“

The leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union discusses their latest COVID-19 safety plan on Saturday January 8, 2022. WBEZ
The leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union discusses their latest COVID-19 safety plan on Saturday January 8, 2022. WBEZ

Chicago Teachers Union unveils new proposal that involves measures already rejected by city officials

The mayor responded immediately: “Students need to be back in person as soon as possible,” the mayor said in a statement. “We will not relent.“

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In a bold, high-stakes move, the Chicago Teachers Union on Saturday afternoon laid out publicly the terms of what it is calling a “full, comprehensive safety agreement” in hopes it will prompt Mayor Lori Lightfoot and school district officials to meet its demands and end the standoff that started on Wednesday.

The new proposal includes a metric for closing all schools due to a COVID-19 surge, which the mayor and the schools chief strongly oppose. They favor a school-by-school approach instead. The proposal includes remote learning beginning Wednesday and a return to in-person learning on Jan. 18. 

The response from the mayor and the CPS CEO was immediate and unequivocal.

“CTU leadership, you’re not listening,” they said in a statement. “The best, safest place for kids to be is in school. Students need to be back in person as soon as possible. That’s what parents want. That’s what the science supports. We will not relent.”

That was followed Saturday night by a more conciliatory statement by from the school district: “We are growing closer on many important issues.” However, CPS said it is rejecting key parts of CTU’s proposal.

These include the metric for moving the entire district to remote learning, delaying the start of in-person learning until Jan. 18 and adopting a COVID-19 testing program where students opt out of testing rather than the current opt-in model. CPS has agreed with CTU on several issues, including providing KN95 masks for all students and offering testing for all staff next week, though the testing doesn’t have to be done prior to returning to work.

The back and forth was followed by news from the governor’s office that Abbott and the University of Illinois SHIELD Illinois program are providing 350,000 rapid antigen tests to the school district. CPS said it would be finalizing arrangements  for the sale to the district as soon as possible.

Union leaders argue their new proposal offers significant compromises. CTU President Jesse Sharkey highlighted that the union dropped its call for all students to submit a negative COVID-19 test before returning to in-person learning, which is required in some other school districts including Washington, D.C. The union still wants school staff to test before returning. CTU leaders say it’s now time for the mayor to compromise.

“This represents a change in our position and now we’re appealing to the public and to the mayor to find it in her heart to make a compromise to reopen the schools,”  Sharkey said a Saturday afternoon news conference, where the union  leaders were joined by Jesse Jackson. 

He said they want instruction  to restart  quickly and want to give parents a “date certain” when school will resume in person. He did acknowledge, however, that if CPS adopts a citywide metric for moving all schools to remote instruction during a sustained surge that could impact the Jan. 18 return date. 

Sharkey called remote learning an imperfect tool but one that was necessary short term at a time when everyone was making hard choices. 

CPS classes have been cancelled for three days and will be closed on Monday unless a deal is reached this weekend. Sharkey said the two sides are talking constantly and negotiations are ongoing but said the mayor’s “hard no” on any remote learning and widespread COVID-19 testing is standing in the way.

The mayor and the school district locked out teachers and staff after union members voted Tuesday night to defy the requirement that they instruct in person. Teachers and staff said they wanted to teach remotely until January 18, but CPS and city officials say in-person learning is safe with the safety measures that are in place. They cite the academic and emotional impact of remote learning all last year and say they don’t want to do that again. They also emphasize that children are at low risk for severe COVID-19 symptoms, especially when they are vaccinated.

The proposal includes two key demands the mayor and school district have previously emphatically rejected. Top among them is the metric for sending the whole district to remote learning. It also includes a program to test 10% of randomly selected students each week, rather than only students who have opted into the testing program. The mayor strongly opposes an “opt-out” program where students would by default be tested unless their parents remove them.

CTU leaders would not say they were presenting their “last and best proposal,” and indicated they would continue bargaining with the mayor and her team. However, they said they don’t see many places where they could bend.

Before CPS responded to CTU’s proposal, Sharkey said he didn’t want to consider what would happens if the mayor refuses to accept these terms, which would last through the end of the school year. He did hold out the possibility that the refusal could drag this standoff beyond January 18.

“We are always trying to avoid the nuclear option,” Sharkey said. “But we are going to have to defend our membership.”

CTU proposal details

The union wants to reinstate the metric agreed upon last year for when the entire school district would flip to remote learning during a surge in COVID-19 cases. It calls for the switch when the rate of COVID-19 positivity in the city increases for seven consecutive days, is at least 15% higher for seven days than the rate one week prior; and the rate on the seventh day is 10% or greater than the week before.

Sharkey said this complicated metric only shuts down in-person learning for the “most severe surges.” The union says the current surge is posting enough cases to meet this standard.

But on Thursday, Lightfoot argued emphatically that a districtwide metric is unnecessary. She said the district doesn’t need to go all remote because most teachers and many students are vaccinated. She and Martinez also said it doesn’t take into account that some areas of the city have higher vaccination rates and significantly lower positivity rates.

“When there’s a challenge, when there’s a problem, we will pivot and, if we need to go remote, on a classroom-by-classroom basis, or a school-by-school basis, we will do that,” she said. “But we will do that based upon the data in the science, and we are not going to let anyone dictate to us anything different that doesn’t comport with the data in the science.”

The city’s public health commissioner is also arguing that COVID-19 for children is behaving much like the flu, especially for vaccinated children and that schools are not closed for the flu.

The CTU is also pushing for a metric for when an individual school would go remote due to a high number of staff absences. After long rejecting this, Martinez has said he will accept a threshold for flipping a school, but there is still disagreement on what that threshold would be. CPS says CTU thresholds for staff and student absences are too high. In the statement Saturday night, CPS said “we are setting higher thresholds to prevent needlessly sending students, especially vaccinated students, into remote learning.”

The other proposal that Lightfoot has already rejected centers on the union’s insistence that children could be randomly tested for COVID-19 unless a parent expressly opts them out.

The union wants the school district to agree to test 10% of children randomly chosen each week, not just the 10% that have opted into the district’s screening program. Plus they say the 10% of students who have already signed up for weekly testing should continue to participate. This would mean that the school district would have to commit to testing as many as 60,000 students every week. It is not clear if the school district has the capacity to do so.

But the larger question is getting a random sample when the current policy is that the parents must sign their child up for the weekly testing program. Currently, parents must go online to sign children up for the program, a process some find complicated.

Sharkey said the policy must change to an “expectation” that all children are eligible for random testing, but that union members would work diligently to get opt-out forms in the hands of students and would make sure they are collected.

Sharkey said a random COVID-19 screening program is essential for curbing the spread.

But Lightfoot is dead set against an opt-in program, calling it morally wrong to perform a quasi-medical procedure without a parent’s affirmative knowledge or consent.

“As a parent of a child, I would be outraged if a school system was doing anything with my child that I didn’t know about, and I didn’t affirmatively authorize,” she said Thursday. “Why would we take that option away from parents? We’re not going to do that. Come up with a different plan.”

Another demand Lightfoot and Martinez are rebuffing is paying staff for school days that were cancelled. The school district stopped paying teachers and staff who didn’t go to schools this week, which was at least 87% of teachers. “CPS is firm that staff who did not work during this period will not be paid,” CPS said in its statement Saturday night.

The union wants medically fragile staff or staff who are unable to be vaccinated to be able to take an unpaid leave of absence if they are concerned about contracting COVID-19. CPS accepted this proposal. 

CTU also is proposing that contact tracing be turned over to school staff, rather than district teams. The district’s contact tracing has been widely criticized for not being efficient in notifying parents that their children were exposed. CPS on Saturday night said it agreed to create contact tracing teams that include school-based staff. The union also wants a supply of take-home COVID-19 tests for students that exhibit symptoms. CPS rejected this but that was before the offer of the Abbott tests. 

CTU leaders defended its approach of making public demands and essentially trying to bargain outside the negotiating table. The union presented the proposal to its elected representatives Saturday morning to get their go-ahead.

CTU leaders say they want the public to understand they are asking for many protections schools across the nation already have. Many school districts across the state and nation have had pause in-person learning and step up COVID-19 testing amid the record surge in COVID-19 cases.

Sharkey also criticized Lightfoot for making the standoff a national issue about remote learning versus in-person learning. He said she doesn’t help matters by going on television and accusing the union of trying to harm children.

To the union, the standoff is about mechanics of making schools safe for staff and students.

But Lightfoot, Martinez and the head of the Chicago Department of Public Health argue the union is being unreasonable. They say all the studies show that transmission of COVID-19 is lower in schools than in the community with proper mitigation in place.

In fact, Martinez said having students at home may contribute to higher community spread.

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