With less than 20 days before the first day of in-person learning for Chicago Public Schools, the school district and the Chicago Teachers Union are far apart on key issues as the two sides try to reach a school reopening deal.
This is the third time in the last nine months that the two have negotiated agreements to reopen schools for in-person learning. The last two resulted in deals, but not without great acrimony and a near strike before the first deal was struck in February.
CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said she is disappointed with what she characterized as a lack of urgency on the part of the school district and the mayor’s office. But she would not speculate on what would happen if no agreement is reached.
“I want to remain on the hopeful side that we can reach an agreement,” said Davis Gates, who was part of the team that negotiated the two other deals, opening elementary schools first and then high schools. “It’s very difficult for the mayor and our school district to collaborate. There is very little legacy of parent voice, community voice, educator voice in how they create school policy. That is a very weak muscle for them.
“So there’s a lot of confusion and disorganization,” she said. “And the clock is ticking.”
There has been movement. CPS said it would offer testing to all staff and students weekly. The school district also agreed to universal masking before the governor mandated it last week.
But the union is pushing hard to continue the strictest protocols from last spring around quarantining and a potential return to remote schooling. It is also demanding that the school district staff up dramatically.
The school district is saying no to the hiring and, while it says it is beefing up its safety protocols this fall, it is also focused on limiting disruptions to in-person learning.
“Our proposal is straightforward: it is in alignment with CDC, IDPH and CDPH guidelines and follows the science,” the school district wrote in a statement. “Last school year, before vaccinations were widely available, we safely opened schools, prevented in-school transmission, and did not experience any school wide operational pauses. This is a new school year, and we have enhanced our safety protocols further so we can safely provide in-person learning, at scale, to all of our students five days per week.”
These negotiations take place as the delta variant spreads and the cases of COVID-19 among unvaccinated children rises, raising the stakes and anxiety on all sides.
Quarantine and remote learning
Davis Gates said the biggest disagreement is over which students should be quarantined, and when a school and the school district should revert to remote learning.
CPS wants a less restrictive quarantine policy for each school that maximizes in-person learning. It wants to limit quarantining to unvaccinated close contracts of an infected student or staff member, per CDC recommendations. They also say students and staff who recently had COVID-19 don’t need to quarantine.
Under CPS’ plan, in-person learning could continue for all students except those that must quarantine.
But the union wants all students and staff exposed to quarantine, regardless of vaccination status. That would mean if there is a confirmed case in a class, all students would revert to remote learning for 14 days.
The CTU also wants an entire school to switch to remote learning if there are three COVID-19 cases in different classes. Here again, CPS differs. It only wants a brief pause of in-person learning to allow for contract tracing. Then, only unvaccinated people would have to be quarantined.
The union is strongly opposed to having both in-person and remote students in one class, which requires teachers to juggle both groups at the same time, as they did last spring.The CTU called simultaneous instruction last year “disastrous” and are demanding an end to the practice.
Finally, CPS and CTU disagree on whether the entire school district should ever move to remote learning. CPS says no, that the directive from the state is that students remain in schools five days a week.
The union, however, wants in-person learning across the district to shut down for 14 days under the same circumstances agreed to in the spring: if the COVID-19 test positivity rate increases for seven straight days, the rate for each of those days is 15% higher than the week before and the overall rate on the seventh day is 10% or greater.
Testing is another major sticking point. On Friday, there appeared to be a breakthrough for CTU when CPS sent a letter to parents saying it was going to test all students and staff weekly. Davis Gates said the union was surprised because universal weekly testing hadn’t been on the table.
But it won’t be mandatory. Instead, the school district will offer tests to all students weekly and require unvaccinated students participating in sports to get tested once or twice a week.
The union wants to go beyond an offer of testing and make it a regular practice, especially at schools at higher risk of infection.
The CTU wants the school district to get parental consent at the beginning of the year to regularly test students. It then wants half the students in the 10 ZIP codes with the highest number of cases and the lowest vaccination rates to be tested weekly, as well as disabled high school students in special cluster programs. CTU officials argue that by only “offering the test” and not doing it as a surveillance system, the testing will not give a true picture of who is infected.
CPS said on Wednesday that its testing program will be ready on the first day of school. But Davis Gates said it will take time to set up properly for such a large school district. She said in the spring there were problems with COVID-19 testing, including problems scheduling teachers to get tested and communicating news of positive cases to schools.
Chicago Public Schools has said it will keep students 3 feet apart when possible, which aligns with current CDC and IDPH guidance. The CTU wants 6 feet of social distance, which was the standard last year. The union also wants rooms where students cannot be kept 6 feet apart to be off limits. However, Davis Gates said the biggest problem with CPS’ 3-foot social distancing standard is that it is “aspirational” and not a requirement with limited exceptions.
The union also is frustrated with the way the school district is handling reengaging students who have fallen off during the pandemic and staffing schools.
Faced with a spike in needs among students who have struggled during the pandemic, the union is calling for more special education and bilingual teachers, and an additional counselor, social worker, nurse, restorative justice coordinator and librarian for every school.
They also want clerks and teachers to be paid to do home visits with students who have not been attending school regularly. Davis Gates said research shows that students and families respond better when they know the people who visit their homes.
The union points out that the school district and the city together have $4 billion in federal COVID-19 relief money that could be spent on these positions. CPS has $1.8 billion of that total to spend over the next three years
But the school district rejects these staffing demands. It say CPS has put together a plan to support students. The budget for this year and next includes $516 million in COVID-19 relief dollars to go mostly for tutoring, student outreach and staff training on dealing with trauma. CPS is paying a limited number of teachers to do home visits, but is mostly leaning on Safe Passage workers, who are stationed on the streets outside schools to keep students safe. Those workers are employed by outside organizations.
CPS leaders say they are investing like never before but cannot spend the federal COVID-19 relief money on recurring costs, like salaries, because the money will disappear in three years and leave the school district facing a fiscal cliff.
Union officials point out that their calls for increased staffing was the key issue in the negotiations for the 2019 contract. After an 11-day strike, city and school district officials relented and put promises in the contract, including a social worker and nurse for every school, which are being added by July 2023.
Many CTU members say they need far more staff than called for in the contract to support students who have been traumatized during the pandemic. But after such a hard fought battle in the 2019 negotiations, which led to a strike, it is unclear whether the demand for greater staffing will become a central battle in this school reopening fight.