With negotiations over a school reopening deal at an impasse, Chicago Public Schools is setting up yet another showdown with the Chicago Teachers Union for Monday. It’s threatening to lock teachers out of their remote classrooms if they don’t return to school buildings on Monday.
The threat, which could prompt the CTU to call a strike, is directed at preschool and some special education staff. In a letter to parents and staff Friday evening, CPS said these educators are expected back on Monday ahead of students returning on Tuesday.
This is part of a new, phased-in return that CPS has offered the teachers union as part of its “last, best, and final offer” made late Thursday night. CPS had hoped to bring elementary students back on Feb. 1, but that has been delayed. CTU members have refused to return to schools until a reopening agreement is reached with the school district.
Now, CPS is proposing that K-5 students return on Feb. 22 and middle schoolers on Mar. 1. School staff would be due back a week before their students. The CTU points out that some 11,000 staff will be due in buildings on Feb. 16, whether they have been vaccinated or not.
CPS leaders told parents and staff that their offer addressed “all of [CTU’s] areas of concern” and represented “significant compromise,” yet no deal has been reached.
The CTU on Friday afternoon dismissed CPS’ reopening offer, saying it was “deficient on the most critical safety issues.” On the timing of the return, for example, the union said its goal is for all elementary school staff to be vaccinated and in-person by March 8.
The union said it was taking the fact that CPS is making a final offer as a sign that its bargaining team was walking away from the table.
“We’re deeply disappointed that the mayor has chosen to stop negotiating and instead move to lock out educators and shut down schools rather than work out our differences,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said in a letter to members. “Our stance hasn’t changed: We are willing to work and we are willing to negotiate the safest agreement for our students, their families and all stakeholders in our school communities.”
Members of the teachers union have said they will not report to buildings until there is an agreement. They have been defying orders to return since Jan. 25, when they were supposed to return to prepare for elementary school classes to resume. Lightfoot’s only option for retaliation would be to block them from teaching remotely.
If that happens, the union has threatened to strike. This would disrupt learning for 280,000 students and, most agree, would be politically disastrous for Lightfoot.
For its part, CPS’ leader told parents they wanted to get a deal done.
“We’ve been patient, and moved our deadlines again and again out of respect for our employees, students, and families,” they said in the letter. “We have put everything on the table to reach a deal that protects our students and staff, and supports the families who need an alternative to remote learning.”
Despite CPS’ ultimatum, a source said talks will continue between the two sides.
This is the second day in a row that Lightfoot tried to put pressure on the union to agree to terms for reopening. She demanded that a deal be made Thursday. “Let me emphasize that time is running out,” Lightfoot said Thursday morning. “We need our kids back in school. We need our parents to have that option.”
CPS students had a previously scheduled day off on Friday, so there was no threat of disrupting classes for students.
Starting with a morning press conference and throughout the Thursday, the mayor and school district leaders painted the teachers union as intransigent and unwilling to respond to their proposals. At almost 6 p.m, they put out this brief statement: “Late this afternoon, we received a counter proposal from CTU leadership and we are working on a response.”
Friday morning, the union said the school district did not respond to their offer for eight hours after receiving it.
Also, on Thursday, the CTU shot back that the school district had refused for months to bargain with them over reopening. A union statement said, “We are here, in the 11th hour, working towards a full agreement.”
The union also noted that its leadership does not make decisions “unilaterally in a vacuum” but instead requires “buy-in from all stakeholders.”
School district and union officials are still divided on several controversial issues as they try to reach a deal. They include:
The timeline for resuming in-person learning: The union has been insisting that the Feb. 1 date chosen by the school district to bring back elementary school students was arbitrary. They want a phased-in reopening linked to vaccines. The goal would be to have the option of in-person learning available for all elementary school students by March 8.
City and national public health officials, as well as CPS CEO Jackson, have stressed that vaccines are not necessary for a safe reopening. The school district is now proposing that preschool and special education students restart in-person learning on Feb. 8. Then, kindergarten through fifth grade on Feb. 22 and middle schoolers on March 1. Staff would have to report the week prior.
Work-from-home accommodations for staff with medically compromised relatives. The school district only wants to allow staff to work from home if they have a medical condition or if they are primary caregivers for a relative with a medical condition. It says it has already allowed 5,000 accommodations. For staff with a medically compromised relative at home, the school district’s latest offer allows them to stay remote until they get the first shot and then for 14 days afterwards. But only if they get the first shot within the next two weeks, starting Monday. The school district points out the first shot offers protection against contracting the virus.
The union wants the school district to allow all educators who have high risk medical conditions, are primary caregivers or who live with medically fragile household members to be able to work remotely.
A public health metric. In its latest offer, the school district is proposing that the district would revert to remote learning for 14 days if the COVID-19 positivity rate within CPS’ surveillance testing program reaches 2.5% or if 50% of schools are on a 14-day operational pause because of outbreaks.
The union wants to resume full remote learning if the citywide positivity rate increases in 10 of the previous 14 days. For opening, the union’s current position is that schools can open only if the city has a positivity rate below 5% and there are no more than 20 new cases per 100,000 residents citywide every 14 days. The union says this is the criteria suggested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for a low risk of transmission at school. The school district insists that a positivity rate is not recommended by public health experts, though some districts have one in place. The city’s current positivity rate, its lowest in months, is 5.2%.
The union is also insisting that the school district repay wages for a small number of staff who have not been paid since mid-January after they were locked out of their virtual classrooms. These educators refused to report in person and instead wanted to continue teaching remotely. They began working remotely before the full union membership collectively approved a resolution to work remotely on Jan. 24.