Here’s Why CPS Teachers Won’t Show Up Wednesday — And How That Could Trigger A Strike

Chicago Public Schools staff teach outside on Jan. 21, 2021, to protest the school district's plan to return for in-person learning. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Chicago Public Schools staff teach outside on Jan. 21, 2021, to protest the school district's plan to return for in-person learning. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Here’s Why CPS Teachers Won’t Show Up Wednesday — And How That Could Trigger A Strike

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The Chicago Teachers Union and Chicago Public Schools failed to reach a deal on school reopening, triggering plans for 14,000 school staff to refuse to report to schools on Wednesday and opening the door for a strike.

This means that about 3,200 preschool and special education students who have been attending in-person classes for more than two weeks will again be at home Wednesday.

As part of a Chicago Teachers Union resolution passed by members over the weekend, CPS staff agreed to work remotely only starting Wednesday. Mayor Lori Lightfoot confirmed Tuesday evening that remote learning would continue for all students on Wednesday.

This comes as CPS said it laid out a new “comprehensive” reopening proposal on Tuesday.

“We believe that our latest proposal to the union can serve as a foundation to a deal,” CPS CEO Janice Jackson said Tuesday evening, noting beefed up provisions for testing, expanded options to work from home and new metrics to pause instruction. “Frankly, there is no good reason why we shouldn’t have an agreement at this time right now.” 

In a press release, the union called the proposal “both unsafe and unacceptable.” CPS says it wants to continue to negotiate an agreement that “protects” its planned Feb. 1 date for elementary students to return for in-person classes. The union, which wants that date pushed back, is asking for a mediator to step in to broker an agreement. Lightfoot said she is open to a mediator.

Will there be a strike?

The decision by CPS to go ahead with remote learning on Wednesday comes even though Jackson has said repeatedly that if staff refuse to return to school buildings she considers that a strike.

While she has refused to clarify, the implication was that the school district would cancel lessons for all 280,000 students at district-run schools, including all students who are learning remotely. While this may seem like a drastic step, the city and school district may need to do this in order to try to get an injunction against what they have deemed an “illegal” strike. However, this is not CPS’ plan for Wednesday.

But there’s another way there could be a strike: If CPS blocks any staff from teaching remotely on Wednesday, CTU plans to respond with a strike beginning on Thursday morning, with picketing outside school buildings.

Despite the strike threat, both the union and the city tried to lower the temperature Tuesday evening.

“Teachers, of course we want you to be safe. Our course, we take your health and safely incredibly seriously,” Lightfoot said. “But we need you to work with us. We need to talk to your leadership, because we can’t get there unless we get there together. And we need to get a deal done for our children.”

Why don’t teachers and staff want to return?

Many fear contracting the virus at school, putting either themselves or a family member at serious risk. Teachers and staff acknowledge that other types of workers are staffing supermarkets and hospitals. But they point out that they have been teaching from home for 10 months and question whether the extra exposure is necessary.

Teachers and staff also point out that only about a third of all parents are willing to bring their children into schools for in-person learning. They are being told to teach both remote students and in-person students at the same time, which they worry will dilute the quality of education for both sets of students.

But Lightfoot and Jackson insist that in-person learning is a necessary option. They say remote learning is not working for many students and they risk of losing “a whole generation of students.”

They also insist that schools are safe with the mitigation protocols they have put in place, arguing that early evidence shows school-based transmission of COVID-19 cases have been low. That is the conclusion of a paper released by the CDC on Tuesday that reviews a range of studies.

Where do CPS and the CTU part ways?

Though the union and the school district have been negotiating for months, there are still several key issues that separate them and are preventing them from reaching a reopening agreement. CPS’ new proposal on Tuesday appeared to do little to move the needle.

The union wants reopening delayed until staff are vaccinated. The CTU is increasingly focused on the fact that school staff are slated to get vaccinated starting mid-February. Leaders wants the school district to vaccinate teachers before ordering them back into schools.

In CPS’ proposal Tuesday, it offered to prioritize vaccinations for in-person school staff working in communities with the highest COVID-19 positivity rates. But it said it can’t go farther than that. In a letter to parents, it said while it is prioritizing teachers in the phase that began on Monday it “cannot cast aside an equitable vaccination plan and deprioritize the needs of other deserving community members.”

City public health officials have said schools are safe for staff without a vaccination, and note that because of limited supplies it will take months to get all staff their shots.  

The union also says that Feb. 1, the date that elementary school students are scheduled to return, is arbitrary. The union has been suggesting that the reopening be delayed and then phased in so that fewer teachers and staff are needed.

The union wants more staff to be allowed to work from home. A big argument has been over how many teachers and staff should be required in school buildings. The union wants staff to be able to volunteer to return, or at least a more liberal accommodation policy that allows for almost all staff to stay home if they have a medical concern or someone in their family does. 

Up to now, CPS has let staff with qualifying medical conditions work at home but has been far less willing to let staff work remotely who are fearful for themselves or for a family member with a higher risk of a COVID-19 complication.

In its proposal Tuesday, CPS said it is guaranteeing remote accommodations for all staff who have conditions that put them at elevated risk if they contract COVID-19 or who are the primary caregivers for family members who are at increased risk. It also said “the district is working to provide as many additional accommodations as possible.” The CTU says it wants telework available for the vast majority of staff with household members who are at high risk.

The union points out that few staff are needed because in the first group of students offered in-person learning, only 19% participated. And only about 37% of parents of elementary school students — the second group scheduled to begin Monday — said they were considering bringing their children.

But the school district is trying to balance these concerns with the need to have teachers in schools with students. Even with a small percentage of students going into classes, matching teachers and other staff with classes is difficult.

The union wants metrics in place to dictate when schools close and reopen. The union’s current official proposal is for schools to reopen when the positivity rate falls below 3% or when there are less than 400 new cases daily. Union leaders acknowledge that this is likely too optimistic. After all, Chicago hasn’t had a 3% positivity rate since early spring.

However, the union says there must be some standard for when the spread is so intense that schools can’t be open.

On Tuesday, CPS proposed that in-person learning may be suspended at all schools if surveillance testing reaches 3%. If the district reaches that level, a joint CPS/CTU committee would make a recommendation to the CPS CEO and CTU president to determine if in-person classes should stop. 

CPS had backed off having a positivity rate this summer, saying public health officials no longer recommend it. The school district says the public health department recommends a measure that looks at how many days it takes for positivity rates to double.

The union wants more testing. The union would like all staff to get COVID-19 tests, ideally each week. In recent days, leadership has mentioned the need for more baseline testing and for students to get tested. 

On Tuesday, the school district boosted its plan to test all staff from once to twice a month. The school district is also offering to test up a 25% of staff each week. It also offered to begin testing students for the first time. It proposed monthly testing for students who attends schools in 10 ZIP codes with the highest COVID-19 positivity rates. 

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.