A relieved Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Sunday announced a tentative agreement with the Chicago Teachers Union over school reopening, acknowledging that the bitter fight with the union put parents and students in the middle. She thanked them for their patience.
However, the teachers union leadership is not calling this a tentative deal, instead calling it a tentative framework. The union’s governing body will vote on the deal Monday afternoon, deciding whether to reject or send it to the full membership for a ratification vote. If it’s sent to the membership, the governing body will recommend a vote for or against the deal or remain neutral.
Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson called this a major win for parents who will now have the option of sending students back to in-person school. Some 67,000 children or 32% of students in pre-K through 8th grade and in some special education programs, said they want to return.
“The victory is for our families who need it the most,” Jackson said. “It will allow us to provide them the relief and certainty that they need.”
Lightfoot and Jackson made some significant concessions to land the tentative deal. Among them, kindergarten through 5th graders won’t start until March 1 and 6th through 8th graders won’t start until March 8. CPS originally had insisted all elementary school students have the option to return to school on February 1.
Preschool and some special education students are due to return Feb. 11. Those students initially returned on Jan. 11 but in-person learning was paused on Jan. 25 after union members voted to refuse to return to school buildings without a reopening deal and to work remotely only. The tentative deals calls for at least 1,000 does of vaccine to be offered this week to those staff returning.
Also under the tentative deal, staff won’t lose their job or benefits if they choose to stay home through mid-April, but they will have to take an unpaid leave. For staff that applied to work from home, for example, they can get the first shot and stay home for 14 days. If they want to continue at home, they can take unpaid leave with benefits through mid-April, but their job will be waiting for them. Previously, Jackson had pushed back on the idea that vaccinations be tied at all to the return to schools.
In a message to members on Sunday, CTU President Jesse Sharkey said “This framework represents the progress we’ve made at the bargaining table, which, while not everything our school communities deserve, must be evaluated against the uncertainty of a potential lockout. We don’t reach this point without your strength, your unity and your collective action, but because of the twists and turns that negotiations have taken under the direction of Mayor Lightfoot and CPS leadership, I am certain that there will be no further gains without additional action.”
Lightfoot and Jackson focused on putting the acrimony and struggle behind CPS and the city.
“This agreement was about making sure everyone in our school communities aren’t just safe, but also that they feel safe, and feel that their lived experience and fears and frustrations have been heard,” Lightfoot said.
A union source criticized the mayor and the school district for forcing talks to go to the wire.
“The people of Chicago need to know that the CTU has been put in a situation where all we’re trying to do is land safety — yet the mayor, her doctor and her CPS team have instead fought us tooth and nail on our every effort to land real safety guarantees for students, their families and the educators who serve them,” the CTU source told WBEZ.
The CTU is bringing the deal framework to its members as the impasse was moving toward a strike. The school district had previously required some staff to report to buildings on Monday. If they didn’t, the school district said they would be locked out of their virtual classrooms. And that, the union warned, could have led their members to walkout.
Lightfoot and the school district leadership yielded to one of the main demands of the union — agreeing to delay the start of in-person classes for elementary school students until some staff can get vaccinated.
The new phased-in start of in-person learning doesn’t tie reopening to vaccinations, as the union wanted, but it does give staff several weeks to get vaccinated before students return.
Under the tentative agreement, CPS and CTU came to terms on the thorny issues on the table for months.
The deal calls for CPS to provide at least 1,500 doses per week to CPS employees. That will begin later this month. CPS agreed to increase the weekly doses as Chicago’s overall supply increases. In addition, CPS staff in the city’s 15 communities hit hardest by COVID-19 are eligible through a different city program called Protect Chicago Plus.
CPS will also prioritize vaccinations for the following staffers: those returning to the classroom, based on the order in which they are returning; clerks and other staff working in-person starting Feb 8, staffers in high-risk age or demographic categories; employees in Chicago zip codes with the highest COVID-19 positivity rates’ and employees with telework accommodations who request vaccination in order to resume in-person work.
The school district also says this week it will offer 2,000 doses split between the pre-K and special education staff due back as well as staff who have requested to work from home.
A big sticking point in negotiations has been over employees who want to work remotely because someone in their household is medically vulnerable. CPS moved to make concessions for these staffers. In the proposed tentative agreement, any staff member who doesn’t want to return can take a leave while keeping their job and benefits until mid-April.
It is offering to “grant telework accommodations to the extent operationally feasible” and agreed on a set of staffing strategies for principals to use to maximize the number of accommodations allowed. This is a major concession as the school district did not want to give principals any flexibility in deciding who needed to teach in person, even if few to no students were in their classrooms.
Crucially for CTU, is CPS’ agreement to offer vaccinations to all staffers due back this week who requested an accommodation. CPS said it will make 1,000 doses this week to staff who requested an accommodation and are willing to return in person 14 days after getting their first dose. If employees don’t get the shot, they can take unpaid leave while keeping their job and benefits until mid-April. Thus, CTU is saying that no CTU member is required to resume in-person learning prior to having the opportunity to be vaccinated.
Earlier, CPS had agreed to give accommodations to employees with qualifying medical conditions or who are the primary caregivers for a relative with a medical risk.
Health metrics to determine when schools open and close
The proposed deal doesn’t go as far as CTU wanted, but CPS moved some. It calls for a 14-day switch to all-remote learning if the city’s COVID-19 test positivity rate increases for seven consecutive days, if the rate for each of the 7 consecutive days is at least 15% higher than the rate one week prior; and the rate on the 7th day is 10% or greater. Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, said if this happens, it will signify a surge. In-person learning would start again after 14 days or when the criteria for pausing in-person learning are no longer met — whichever is later.
Individual classrooms would shut down if there are more positive cases during a contagious period. Individual schools would shut down if there are three or more confirmed positive cases in three or more different classrooms within a 14-day period
The union had wanted schools to stay all remote unless the city had a positivity rate below 5% and no more than 20 new cases per 100,000 residents citywide every 14 days.
CPS agreed to test all symptomatic students and staff; test all employees each week at the 134 schools in neighborhoods with high COVID-19 case numbers and test students there as well; test 50% of employees per week in other neighborhoods; and offer testing for all staff before they return in person and for students 10 and older.
On Sunday, Jackson also confirmed that CPS would still like to resume in-person learning for high schoolers. She said a plan for that would be addressed soon and that CPS would work with CTU on it. She also said students who opted to stay in remote learning for the current quarter can sign up to return in-person for the fourth quarter, which begins in mid-April.