As Chicago Public Schools leaders welcomed the first small group of students into classrooms Monday, they also announced that about 18% of teachers and staff who were required to return failed to do so and that, starting Tuesday, some of them will lose pay and be cut off from their virtual classrooms.
On Tuesday, 145 staff are far enough in the discipline process to be considered “absent without leave” and will face these harsh consequences.
Unless the school district’s position changes, that is likely just the beginning. A quarter of staff required to return didn’t, according to the school district. Of those 915 teachers and staff, 678 didn’t have an excuse for not swiping in, according to CPS. The rest failed the health screener and were excused.
The Chicago Teachers Union is incensed, calling these actions “cruel and illegal.” They also said there is already at least one outbreak in a school that reopened. Jenny Delessio-Parson from McCutcheon Elementary said she was informed Sunday evening that a colleague tested positive and several staff members are quarantining. She said it was a chaotic first day.
But this move also heightens the pressure for both the union and the school district to come to an agreement over reopening. The school district needs to have staff in classrooms as it moves forward with plans to bring thousands more students into schools. Some 70,000 elementary school students are expected to return to in-person learning on Feb. 1.
Meanwhile, it is risky for the union to have its members acting alone and risk losing their jobs. The union in recent days has been toning down its often fiery rhetoric in a sign it may also be looking to strike a deal and avoid a potential strike during a pandemic.
CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said she thinks the school district is increasingly receptive to reaching an agreement with them.
“In a pandemic where each day forward looks worse than the day we left with respect to infections and deaths, the cumulative impact requires collaboration, requires partnership, requires clarity of process and procedure,” Davis Gates said. “That is what the pandemic requires. It is not just that we require it.”
CTU President Jesse Sharkey also reiterated that he wants to reach a deal. He pointed out that the union scored a major legislative victory Monday. State lawmakers passed a bill that repeals a 25-year-old law that restricts the CTU’s bargaining rights to negotiating over salary and benefits only. With passage of this amendment, the union will have the right to bargain over a range of subjects. This means CPS may be forced to negotiate an agreement with the union over the district’s reopening plans, depending on if and when the governor signs the bill.
The school district has yet to respond to the union’s charges that its actions are illegal, nor has it said whether it will have enough staff to fill in classes when some staff can’t log in. While CPS CEO Janice Jackson said Monday only a small group of dissidents weren’t returning, she and Mayor Lori Lightfoot thanked teachers who were teaching remotely and in person.
Speaking at a school Monday, Lightfoot pointedly said to staff worried about their safety in schools, “I understand and hear and see you.”
“I want to assure you that we have, and will continue to take every step possible, to address those concerns in a way that is consistent with public health guidance,” Lightfoot said. “This process has to be about substantive, collaborative engagement so that we are walking forward together.”
Yet there remains significant disagreement between the union and the school district over the health metrics that should be used to trigger in-person or all remote learning, as well whether all staff should be forced to report. Considering only 37% of students are expected to return, the union said it wants staff to return voluntarily. But school district leaders, who eventually want all students back in schools, have rejected that idea.
The school district also has not yet said how many students came to class on Monday. It was expecting about 6,000, but many teachers said families pulled out and some classes had only a few students. The principal of a school in Back of the Yards told WBEZ only about half of the students expected back actually returned. Another teacher said the parents of 12 preschoolers who were supposed to return to her school decided to stay home.
Meanwhile, the school district keeps lowering the number of staff it is expected into the buildings this week. Information released Monday shows about 3,838 teachers and teaching assistants are being required to report. The school district said it is allowed about 300 staff originally expected to return to stay remote until Feb. 1. Another 125 had requests to work remotely approved.