Chicago Public Schools classes are canceled for a second day amid an on-going standoff between the mayor, school district leaders and the Chicago Teachers Union. CPS and the union negotiated Wednesday but did not reach an agreement on COVID-19 safety measures, though the CTU reported some progress.
CPS CEO Pedro Martinez Wednesday evening argued that he had “no choice” but to cancel classes again because he lacked sufficient staffing with teachers at home. Just 10% of teachers came to school Wednesday after they voted in large numbers earlier this week to reject in-person learning.
But he said the district would be moving back to in-person learning. He said support and academic services would be available for students in schools starting Friday, and each school would decide its offerings depending on how many staff returned to schools. Martinez suggested students may get in-person instruction, packets to take home, help with college applications or virtual lessons.
He urged the union not to discourage teachers from returning to schools. Notably, teachers were reminded that if they don’t come in to schools, they wouldn’t be paid.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot made clear her frustration with another day of canceled classes amid stalled negotiations with the teachers union.
“We will not relent,” she said. “Enough is enough. We are standing firm and we are going to fight to get our kids back in person learning.”
When asked if she would go to court for an emergency injunction to stop the teachers union, she said, “We have taken steps in that direction.”
She did say that an unfair labor practice complaint had been filed. Meanwhile, the CTU filed its own complaint with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board accusing CPS of an illegal lockout.
Teachers union members voted Tuesday evening to temporarily work remotely amid a surge in COVID-19 cases. In response, the mayor and Martinez canceled classes, calling the action illegal and unnecessary. They say schools are safe and think reverting to remote learning should happen only on a school-by-school basis.
Union leaders say there aren’t enough safety measures in place, particularly at a time when COVID-19 cases are at record levels, breakthrough cases in the vaccinated are common and many students remain unvaccinated.
In an update to members Wednesday night, CTU President Jesse Sharkey said there had been movement at the bargaining table in the last two days. He said there was “more movement” since Monday “than in the last few months. Unfortunately this confirms the pattern. The mayor won’t budget until we demonstrate our willingness to collectively assert our demands.”
The CTU vote called for teachers to work remotely until January 18 or until the current surge subsides, whatever comes first. They are demanding additional safety measures. These include requiring testing for everyone before returning to buildings, more regular testing in schools, high-quality masks for all who want and a COVID-19 metric that would trigger an individual school closing.
CTU wants that metric in place for the rest of the school year. On Tuesday, CPS proposed a metric, but it was only for the month of January. Sharkey called it “woefully inadequate.” CPS also says it has bought KN95 masks for students and staff, will increase contact tracing and is letting schools reinstitute a daily health screener.
This is the third major dispute with the teachers union since Lightfoot was elected mayor in 2019 and there’s no love lost between the two sides.
In an interview with WBEZ on Wednesday, when asked why Lightfoot adamantly opposes allowing teachers to go remote for eight school days while negotiations continue, the mayor characterized the CTU’s proposed return date of January 18 as “arbitrary” and questioned whether they would stick to it.
“They keep moving the goalposts,” she said. “Why would I believe … that they will actually come back? And, frankly, what it underscores is how arbitrary the decisions of the CTU leadership are in disrespect of our parents, our students and data and science. They don’t believe in any of that. What they believe in is exercising raw political power.”
Earlier in the day, Sharkey reiterated that teachers would return to schools after the latest COVID-19 surge subsides, even if there is no safety agreement reached with the school district. He noted Tuesday’s vote that teachers would return by January 18 or when the surge subsidies, whichever is soonest.
“We don’t want to go back to last year, no one does,” Sharkey said. “We think it’s reasonable to ask for testing and safety mitigations in the current context, and then we think quickly the surge passes and we’re able to get back [to] in-person instruction.”