With no deal yet on reopening, Mayor Lori Lightfoot is pushing back Monday’s scheduled start of in-person school until Tuesday. But she said teachers and staff, who have vowed to work remotely only, are expected back on Monday, significantly increasing the odds of a strike.
If teachers don’t come, Schools CEO Janice Jackson said CPS will lock them out of their virtual classrooms at the end of the day on Monday, a move that could trigger a strike.
CTU President Jesse Sharkey on Sunday night said if the mayor locks teachers out of remote teaching, the union will convene its delegates and vote on whether to set a strike date. Members already authorized a strike earlier this month when they voted to work remotely only. Sharkey said he hopes CPS doesn’t move forward with the lockout. And CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said the union isn’t angling for a strike.
“The only ‘s’ word you hear us saying here tonight is safety,” she said during a video news conference. “We absolutely still have time to get an agreement.”
The mayor, Jackson and the CTU disagreed over who was to blame for a breakdown in negotiations on Sunday, with each side pointing at the other. The mayor said she was convinced a deal was possible and essential because remote learning isn’t working for too many students. She vowed to keep CPS at the bargaining table until a deal was done.
“This is deeply disappointed for us as a school system,” Jackson added. “Tens of thousands of CPS students were expected to come back into their classrooms after almost a year of being educated at home. That will not happen because CTU leadership has stood in the way of a safe and sensible reopening.”
The developments Sunday afternoon mean 67,000 preschool, elementary school and some special education students who were scheduled to return to schools for classes will stay at home. On Sunday, parents and children who want to go back said they are tired of being stuck between the union and the school district.
“When my brother and I don’t get along, my mom tells us to figure out a solution and move forward,“ said Maddox, a CPS seventh grader, speaking at a news conference organized by a group of parents calling for school reopening. “Right now I’d like to tell CPS and the teachers union to figure out a solution and move forward so those of us who want to return to school can, and those who don’t can continue to learn from home.”
The new group, which calls itself the Chicago Parent Collective, was trying to get its position heard after the parents said they felt drowned out and bullied by opponents of schools reopening. It says it represents 500 parents across 52 schools. Numerous grassroot community and parent groups representing Black and Latino families have sided with the teachers in criticizing the school district’s reopening plan.
This setback comes after negotiations had been progressing. On Saturday, the two sides announced tentative agreements in four areas related to safety, but the thorniest issues, including which staff can work remotely, remain unresolved.
But the stage for the showdown was set on Friday, when an angry Lightfoot vowed to “take action” if teachers and staff expected on Monday did not come in. At the time, she was not clear on what action she would take.
We know it means locking teachers out of virtual classrooms, which could lead to a strike. On Saturday, Sharkey told CTU members that “If the mayor forces us out on strike, it is not an easy strike. I don’t think we should convince ourselves that we automatically get everything we want by walking out the door. One way or the other, we are going to have to force the other side to make reasonable agreements.”
The union is surveying its members to get more information on how they want to proceed. About 71% of the voting union members approved the resolution to refuse to work in person. The resolution also authorizes a strike if members get locked out of working remotely, or if the district retaliates in some way. This means a significant number of staff are OK with going in and likely won’t participate in a strike, which could dilute its power.
Last Wednesday, when CTU members began to collectively refuse to return to schools, 29% of preschool and special education teachers reported to school buildings. They taught in-person between Jan. 11 and last Wednesday, when the district paused classes because of insufficient staffing levels.
A strike is also a tough because everyone agrees disrupting remote classes would hurt students, the vast majority of whom are staying remote. About 70% of students will be remote until at least April because either parents opted for that or they didn’t respond to an intent-to-return form. The school district won’t let students into learning pods established now until April. The strike would affect all Chicago Public Schools students.
Despite the risks of a strike, the school district and the union haven’t been able to resolve a fundamental difference in opinion about how and when in-person learning should resume.
School district officials want all elementary school students to have the in-person option, and months ago they set Monday as the restart date. To make that possible, schools need a certain number of teachers and staff in buildings with students.
Meanwhile, the union wants the school district to increase the number of staff it says can work from home to include more people who live with medically fragile household members. And they want the reopening delayed, phased in and tied to the vaccination of staff.
The school district has a plan to vaccinate teachers and staff, starting mid-February. But Jackson said that vaccinations are only a tool and that other mitigations, such as mask wearing and social distancing, are also important.
The two sides also disagree, but have made some progress in several key areas. These include: a public health metric to dictate whether schools open or are shut down again; a testing program for students and staff; and ways to improve remote learning.
On Saturday, both the school district and the union announced the four tentative agreements. They cover health and safety protocols, ventilation and contract tracing. The union also got the school district to agree to create building and district-level committees to enforce health and safety protocols.
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.