Chicago Teachers Are Walking Out Wednesday To Ramp Up Pressure For A High School Reopening Deal

Teachers were due at schools to prepare for students to return on Monday. But the union reports progress on key issues at the bargaining table.

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A Chicago Public Schools elementary teacher took part in a protest outside her school in January to push for a reopening agreement with the school district. The Chicago Teachers Union is now negotiating an agreement for high school reopening and is calling on staff not to return to schools buildings on Wednesday, April 14, 2021 to put pressure on negotiations. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
WBEZ
A Chicago Public Schools elementary teacher took part in a protest outside her school in January to push for a reopening agreement with the school district. The Chicago Teachers Union is now negotiating an agreement for high school reopening and is calling on staff not to return to schools buildings on Wednesday, April 14, 2021 to put pressure on negotiations. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Chicago Teachers Are Walking Out Wednesday To Ramp Up Pressure For A High School Reopening Deal

Teachers were due at schools to prepare for students to return on Monday. But the union reports progress on key issues at the bargaining table.

Chicago public high school teachers and staff are not reporting to classrooms Wednesday to protest the lack of a reopening agreement with the school district. This comes after negotiations went late into the evening Tuesday, which the Chicago Teachers Union said led to “some progress.”

The union says teachers will continue to work remotely and the school district has not threatened — as they did with elementary staff — to lock them out. If this standoff continues through Monday, it would delay the return for high school students.

About 26,000 high school students — 36% of all high schoolers — are expected to report for in-person classes. High schoolers have been out of classrooms for more than a year.

Despite the walkout, the school district and the union appear to have made ground in key areas, according to CTU officials Wednesday morning and a document prepared by the union and released to members Tuesday evening.

But it has yet to land a “firm commitment” for vaccinating students 16 and older and communities hard hit by COVID-19, according to a late Tuesday night press release. That’s a top issue for the union.

CTU officials point out that cases of COVID-19 are rising and that young people on the North Side are presenting the most cases. As of Tuesday evening, CPS had proposed working with the city to ensure that students and families in the city’s top 20% of communities most vulnerable to COVID-19 have access to vaccination opportunities, according to the union document.

CPS also committed to working with CTU to develop a plan for summer and fall that used CPS school-based clinics and school-based medical personnel in vaccination efforts, CTU said.

Wednesday’s walkout harkens back to this winter, when elementary school staff refused to report in-person, setting off a series of threats and setting back in-person learning for elementary school students for more than a month. The two sides finally reached an agreement and elementary students ultimately began returning on March 1.

However, Wednesday’s walkout isn’t expected to be accompanied by protests, and staff could resume working in schools as early as Thursday. And, most of the issues that divide the school district and the union are not as fundamental. Instead, they reflect the complexity of high schools, some of which have more than 4,000 students.

The union, for example, has been pushing to allow teachers who don’t have students in school to be able to work from home. The school district’s current proposal, according to the CTU, is to allow teachers to get permission from their principal or the school’s safety committee to work from home on days they have no in-person students in class.

In a press conference Tuesday morning, teacher Jackson Potter explained that he shares a classroom with another teacher and, because he doesn’t have in-person students in some classes, will be forced to teach from the hallway.

The union also has been at odds with the school district over student schedules during in-person learning and accommodations for teachers and staff to continue working remotely.

The CTU wants to make sure that schools expecting more than 1,000 students will not be too crowded to social distance. They are proposing only one day of in-person learning for students at these schools. Yet, according to the school district’s guidelines, those students could be in two days a week if less than 67% of students opt in.

Union President Jesse Sharkey said fewer teachers and staff are requesting to work remotely starting April 19 now that many have been vaccinated. Currently, 6,600 preschool and elementary school staff have accommodations to work from home. All of them are expected to report back on April 19 unless their accommodation is extended.

But some staff are not yet vaccinated, have caretaking responsibilities at home or live with medically compromised relatives. Some are pregnant or nursing and want to remain at home. Many of them are still waiting to hear from CPS on their accommodation request.

As of Tuesday evening, CTU said CPS was proposing allowing staff to work from home if they couldn’t be vaccinated because of medical or religious reasons, and giving temporary accommodations to people until two weeks after their final vaccination dose. CPS also has proposed letting staffers take unpaid, job-protected leave if they can’t return to schools because of child care reasons or because of the needs of a household member. But on Wednesday morning, CTU’s Deputy General Counsel Thad Goodchild accused CPS of “insisting on limiting all these options.”

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