The Chicago Teachers Union voted Thursday evening in favor of a deal to reopen high schools, setting the stage to resume in-person learning in high schools on Monday for the first time in more than a year. Teachers and staff likely will vote on the tentative agreement over the weekend.
The school district and the teachers union announced the reopening deal midday Thursday, followed by a quick vote by the CTU’s House of Delegates. A large majority, 83%, of the governing body’s members voted to recommend the deal to the union’s members.
At most, about 36% of all high schoolers — 26,000 of all students attending neighborhood and selective high schools — are expected to attend in person classes two or more days a week. (This does not include charter schools.)
CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates argued it was essential that district leaders get the school reopening terms right. Though most students have elected to remain remote this spring, the school district needs to be able to bring them back next fall.
“It is up to us to put guard rails around our reopening and Chicago to demonstrate that safety is possible,” Davis Gates said.
In a statement on Thursday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS CEO Janice Jackson said the opportunity for all grades to return for in-person learning is “a critical milestone for our families and it’s a tremendous step forward for the academic and social-emotional well-being of our students.”
The reopening deal came after weeks of negotiations and more than two months after the union and the school district finalized a hard-fought agreement to resume classes for students in preschool through eighth grade.
The biggest win in the agreement for the union is a vaccination program for students in hard-hit communities. According to the union, the school district agreed to provide students and their families with a special code and a specific block of appointment as well as information on special vaccination events around the city.
For CPS, it’s a major victory to reopen its high school doors without a delay.
Davis Gates said the union’s next goal is to try to force the school district to collaborate with the union and parent groups in crafting a plan for spending the $1.8 billion CPS is getting in federal stimulus funds from the latest relief package.
So far, the school district has only committed to using some of that money for summer credit recovery. Davis Gates said it should also invest in a door-knocking campaign this summer to find students who have been absent and get them back in class in the fall.
On Wednesday and Thursday, Chicago Teachers Union members refused to enter school buildings as required in order to pressure the school district to come to terms on a reopening agreement.
But this round of negotiations over high school reopening was much less acrimonious than the winter talks over the return of younger students. During that battle, the union won enforceable safety protocols, accommodations or leaves for thousands of staff uncomfortable working in schools and an accelerated vaccination schedule.
Many staff are now fully vaccinated, which makes continuing remote work less of an issue. However, the union still pushed and won concessions for a smaller number of accommodations, including for those who are unable to be vaccinated due to medical or religious reasons or are the primary caregivers for relatives unable to be vaccinated. Also, staff with child care challenges can apply for accommodations.
In addition, those who are denied accommodations can take an unpaid, job-protected leave of absence through the end of the school year.
Other than the vaccination program, the high school agreement mostly focused on logistical issues. The union wanted a small number of big high schools with lots of students attending to only offer classes one day a week. That demand was amplified after Taft High School, one of the largest in the district, had juniors waiting for two hours on Tuesday to take the SAT college admissions exam.
But the school district refused to budge on this issue, wanting to offer students at big schools as much in-person time as possible. However, if principals want to increase the number of days students can attend in person, the decision must be reviewed by the district’s safety committee. Most students will be able to attend classes in buildings two days a week.
The union also wanted staff with no students in their classes to be allowed to continue to work from home. Union members pointed out that some high school teachers share classrooms, and if they have no students, they may be left working from hallways. The school district agreed to let principals give teachers permission to work from home. And, if denied by a principal, the teacher can appeal to the school’s safety committee.