An irate Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Thursday morning said “time’s up” for a deal with the Chicago Teachers Union on reopening schools for in-person learning during the pandemic, blaming the union for the continued stalemate and “the chaos that we are now enduring.”
This ultimatum brings the city closer to its second teachers strike in less than two years.
“My patience for delays from the CTU leadership is over,” Lightfoot said during a City Hall news conference. “We are failing those children by not giving them the options to return to school. Failing grades. Depression. Isolation. And so much more. That’s why we must get a deal done and get it done now without further delay.”
Lightfoot said negotiations “went backwards” on Wednesday with the union and said the city is waiting for the union to offer a proposal. Still, she said a deal is still possible — but insisted it get done on Thursday.
“We’re right here at the finish line. And we need CTU to join us and go over the threshold. Hopefully together, hopefully with a comprehensive view.” Lightfoot said.
In turn, the union blames Chicago Public Schools and the city for the stalemate. Its leadership accuses CPS of rejecting federal COVID-19 reopening metrics, refusing to let all staff with medically vulnerable household members work remotely and refusing to make improvements to remote learning. When in-person learning resumes, about 70% of students are expected to remain remote.
In an open letter Thursday, CTU appealed to CPS parents.
“CPS and the mayor are still threatening to lock out teachers and shut students out of all learning if we don’t capitulate on critical outstanding safety issues,” the letter read. “We sincerely hope that doesn’t happen. Thousands of our members are also CPS parents. We love your children.”
The mayor and Schools CEO Janice Jackson, whose daughter was slated to return to school this week, also made a point of addressing parents on Thursday, saying they understood their frustration and asking them to “hang on a little longer.” Parents had to wait until 9:30 pm Wednesday to be told there would be no in-person school on Thursday.
That was when CPS announced no deal had been reached and there would be yet another delay in the reopening of schools, until at least Monday, while talks continued. But it said it would only extend a cooling-off period until the end of Thursday. This suggests CPS will begin disciplining school staff who refuse to return to school buildings as early as Friday.
If CPS locks teachers out of their remote classrooms or otherwise retaliates, that could trigger a strike by the union.
Remote learning continues for students on Thursday and Friday is a previously scheduled day off for students. CPS had hoped to resume in-person learning for elementary students last Monday, but CTU members say they won’t return to schools without a reopening deal.
At the press conference, Schools CEO Janice Jackson and City Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwardy repeated their argument that schools are safe with the protocols they have in place. They cited the growing body of evidence that shows school-based transmission of COVID-19 is low.
“We’ve shown over and over again here in Chicago, across the country and around the world that schools are just not the source of COVID spread like people thought they would be a year ago,” Arwady said. “The science continues to evolve, but on this point, the answers could not be more clear.”
Arwady also said the city is dedicated to getting school staff vaccinated and 3,700 CPS employees have been vaccinated or offered vaccination spots so far. However, she said getting vaccinated isn’t required for schools to reopen. CPS staff are now eligible, but vaccination appointments are scarce and they are competing with each to find them.
The CTU and CPS have managed to reach agreement on several issues, including a new agreement on testing protocols for students and teachers.
But the remaining issues are some of the thorniest. The union told its members Wednesday night that the timeline for reopening still remains an issue, as well as the vaccination schedule and which school staff can work remotely.
On vaccinations, the school district is offering to step up the supply. And on the remote work question, the mayor on Thursday said CPS has offered to quickly vaccinate the 2,000 CPS staffers who live with someone who is medically compromised.
But the union said the school district is demanding staff return right after they receive the first shot of the two-dose coronavirus vaccine, or they would have to take an unpaid leave. However, their job would be waiting when they are ready to return. The vaccine offers protection after the first dose, but is not fully effective until a week or two after the second dose.
Another outstanding issue is a public health metric to determine reopening and closing again. The union’s current position is below a 5% positivity rate and 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 school transmission.
The school district insists that a positivity rate is not recommended by public health experts, though some districts have one in place. The district is currently proposing a 3% positivity rate from surveillance testing of CPS staff. Also, if an individual school has three unrelated positive cases in two weeks, operations would be suspended.
The union and school district have several other issues settled, including health and safety protocols, ventilation and a mechanism for enforcing protocols.
They also reached agreement on testing, according to the union. The school district says it will: test all symptomatic staff and students; test all employees and some students at the 134 schools in neighborhoods with high COVID-19 rates; test half of all in-person staff each week; and make testing available for all staff and students over age 10 before they return for in-person learning. As recently as last week, the school district was only offering to test a quarter of in-person staff each week and they did not have a proposal for student testing.
Earlier Thursday, the CTU highlighted about 50 pre-school and special education staff who’ve been locked out of their remote classrooms and docked pay since early January. These staff refused to return to schools when CPS began its first phase of in-person learning on Jan. 11. One parent said with her son’s special education teacher locked out, the class has had no teacher for three weeks. The CTU wants the district to give those teachers back pay as part of a reopening agreement.
The school district said only 31 teachers are still locked out, and Jackson said the class with the absent teacher should have a substitute and that would be addressed. But she said the missing teachers have an obligation to CPS to offer an explanation for why they’re not at schools or take advantage of “all the opportunities that we have for people that have legitimate reasons not to come to work.”
Follow us @WBEZeducation.
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.