The Chicago Teachers Union and Chicago Public Schools have nailed down agreements in several areas as negotiations on reopening continue between the two sides, offering some signs of progress after Mayor Lori Lightfoot lashed out at the union Friday night.
The tentative agreements were reached in four areas, both CPS and CTU announced Saturday afternoon. These include: health and safety protocols, ventilation, contract tracing and safety committees to monitor the safety protocols.
CTU President Jesse Sharkey said in an email Saturday that “every item here is a necessary part of moving us closer to a full safe reopening agreement. They also represent significant progress.” And in a statement Saturday, Lightfoot and Schools CEO Janice Jackson called this “an important step toward reaching an overarching agreement that will ensure students are able to receive the high quality education they deserve.”
The agreements cover safety measures previously announced such as access to masks and social distancing, the purchase of air purifiers for all classrooms and a 10-person contract tracing team.
However, the toughest issues remain unresolved, most notably over whether school will resume on Monday as planned. The mayor insisted on Friday that CPS would go ahead with the reopening on Monday. But CTU members voted last week to continue working remotely until a comprehensive deal is reached with CPS on reopening.
“There is still significant work that needs to be done on the remaining several open issues,” Jackson and Lightfoot said. “We must make additional, meaningful progress today and tomorrow as time is running out. Our teams remain at the bargaining table with the goal of reaching a sensible agreement that allows Chicago’s students and teachers to safely return to the classroom, and we will keep families updated as the work continues through the weekend.”
The outstanding issues include the union demands for a public health metric to guide the opening and closing of schools; vaccinating educators before they return to in-person work; COVID-19 testing for CPS staff and students; remote work accommodations for high-risk employees and employees with high-risk family members; improvements to remote learning.
CPS offered concessions to CTU on most of the outstanding issues earlier this week but CTU said they weren’t enough. The concessions include increasing the amount of testing of staff and adding testing for students in schools with high COVID-19 positivity rates, prioritizing vaccination for staff in those same hard-hit areas, guaranteeing remote work accommodations for staff who are the primary caregivers for family members at increased risk of severe illness, and adding a COVID positivity metric that could trigger the closing of schools.
Saturday’s tentative agreements come after an outburst by the mayor on Friday. She initially called a press conference at 5 pm, but then postponed it. When she finally addressed the media at 9:15 pm without any news to offer, she was livid, saying the CTU “failed and gave us a big bag of nothing.”
“Another day has passed, and the CTU has not agreed to anything,” Lightfoot said.
She vowed to move ahead with reopening on Monday and said the school district would take “further action” against CPS staff if they stayed home. But she said her team would stay at the table and try to get a deal.
But feathers were ruffled, including some even in CPS. A Chicago Public Schools source told WBEZ the mayor’s remarks would take progress made at the bargaining table “a step back.”
Despite that, the two sides returned to the bargaining table on Saturday. “We are making progress,” Sharkey said in the email, ”and we have [tentative agreements] on four items because the team at the table for CPS is working on reaching an agreement. They also, however, have to manage the mayor, which we understand is a concern based on last night’s spectacle. The mayor is interested in winning an argument from the fall of 2019. We are interested in our safety and the safety of our school communities.”