A proposal for Chicago Public Schools to resume in-person classes Wednesday has been approved by the Chicago Teachers Union’s House of Delegates following a contentious weeklong standoff.
The delegates also voted Monday night to suspend the union’s work action that saw teachers refuse to give their lessons in person, prompting the cancellation of the last four school days. There will be no Tuesday classes though teachers will report to schools for planning.
In addition to a return to in-person teaching Wednesday, the plan the House of Delegates approved will set conditions by which an individual school would return to remote learning, determined by the rate of staff absences and students in quarantine or isolation, as well as whether it’s during a period of high community COVID-19 transmission, where a lower threshold would apply.
The measure is expected to go to a union rank-and-file vote this week.
At a late news conference, Mayor Lori Lightfoot praised her team and hailed in-person learning, having staunchly rejected CTU’s calls for a wholesale return to remote learning. Lightfoot also thanked parents that, she said, supported the district.
“We can never forget the impact on the lives of our children and their families. They must always be front and center,” Lightfoot said. “Every decision has to be made with them at the forefront.”
The mayor also downplayed talk of winners and losers in the dispute, saying “No one wins when our students are out of the place where they can learn the best and where they’re safest.”
She also said no one was more frustrated than she was over the most recent union stalemate.
“That’s why I said early on, ‘Enough is enough.’ This was not necessary to happen. ... Three work stoppages in three years? Of course people are frustrated,” Lightfoot said, referencing the 2019 teachers strike and a similar CTU vote last school year to refuse in-person work.
“I’m hopeful this is the end, at least for this school year,” she added.
At a press conference Monday night, CTU leaders touted measures that they said should increase testing in schools, create metrics that could trigger schools to go remote, secure additional KN95 masks for staff and students and beef up contact tracing. Still, they said they continued to favor opt-out testing, a provision they were not able to secure, and remained concerned about some other aspects of the agreement.
“It was not an agreement that had everything, it’s not a perfect agreement, but it’s certainly something we can hold our heads up about, partly because it was so difficult to get,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said.
CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates called the agreement “the only modicum of safety” at CPS.
“The Chicago Teacher’s Union once again, in this pandemic, has had to create the infrastructure for safety and accountability in our school community,” Davis Gates said. “This is the second January in a row where we have had to be held hostage, quite frankly, in hostage negotiations.”
She added: “What parents don’t know is that without the workers, the school workers in our building, you don’t have anything. This mayor is unfit to lead this city. And she is on a one-woman kamikaze mission to destroy our public schools.”
Earlier Monday, Sharkey had said the sides were “apart on a number of key features” and accused Lightfoot of bullying teachers.
Union leaders had argued that teaching remotely — which a large majority of CTU members voted in favor of doing until Jan. 18 amid the current omicron-driven COVID-19 surge — was preferable to losing more instruction time altogether.
“What’s needed is the ability to work together (toward) an agreement to start instruction,” Sharkey said during a Monday morning news conference, saying Lightfoot was being “relentlessly stupid” and “relentlessly stubborn.”
CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said nearly 160 schools offered in-person activities Monday, including three schools that provided full instruction.
The Chicago Principals and Administrators Association had weighed in on the stalemate Monday by offering recommendations on issues CPS and CTU are debating, such as in-school COVID-19 testing procedures, substitute teacher financial incentives and contact tracing protocol.
Most of the school leaders who participated in their group’s discussion had said they support a week of remote learning because of staffing, cleanliness, ventilation, masking and testing woes.
“CPS officials often state that schools are safe when proper mitigation strategies are in place. We agree. However, in far too many schools, the resources for mitigation are not in place,” reads the statement from the principals group. “Roughly half of participating administrators run schools that have staffing, cleanliness and ventilation issues so severe that those administrators deem their schools unsafe.”
Lightfoot, whose administration has repeatedly asserted that schools are safe for students despite record numbers of COVID-19 cases, had said Sunday her administration “categorically” rejects a districtwide return to remote learning.
“To be clear, what the Chicago Teachers Union did was an illegal walkout,” Lightfoot said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “They abandoned their posts and they abandoned kids and their families.”
Asked about the Chicago schools stalemate at a briefing Monday, President Joe Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, said the White House is in regular touch with the mayor and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker over the situation.
“We have been very clear. … We want to see schools open,” Psaki said.
Late Saturday, Pritzker announced his office had secured 350,000 rapid antigen tests for CPS to purchase. That followed a report from political news site capitolfax.com, confirmed by Pritzker’s office Friday, that the state had earlier offered CPS vaccination clinics, masks and SHIELD tests to CPS, but the city didn’t take up the offer.
CTU issued a statement regarding Psaki’s comments Monday, saying: “We welcome the president reaching out to the mayor, and urging her to partner with our city’s educators to develop a plan that will keep our students and school communities as safe as possible — similar to the collaboration and partnership taking place in school districts in cities across the U.S., from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C.”
CPS said negotiations went until 9:30 p.m. Sunday and resumed at 10:30 a.m. Monday.
Hours earlier, outside Spry Elementary in Little Village — an area hit hard by the pandemic — staff members and parents spoke at a CTU news conference about students who’ve lost family members to COVID-19, about high rates of absenteeism in school because of cases and quarantines, and about lingering doubts on whether now’s the time to send students back.
“We need our mayor to step up and be a leader,” Spry teacher Elizabeth Morales said.
CPS reported 10 new cases at Spry last week, with 37 people in quarantine as of Sunday. About 315 students are enrolled at Spry, according to the district.
Districtwide, about 7,500 students and nearly 2,100 adults are in isolation because they tested positive or in quarantine because they came in contact with an infected person, according to CPS figures reported Monday. Last week, CPS reported 1,300 new adult and 1,200 student cases — a record for both groups.
CTU had floated a new proposal Saturday under which remote instruction would begin Wednesday. Lightfoot quickly rejected that, though CPS reported some progress on issues.
“We understand the public wants this impasse to end,” Sharkey said Monday. “The issue here is that of how we’re dealing with the pandemic. It’s not that teachers don’t want to work. We’ve been working.”
Repeating his plea for collaboration, Sharkey said: “We don’t like bullies. We don’t like tyrants. We’re not going to be bullied and pushed in a corner.”
Some CPS parents spoke at a news conference Monday hosted by the local nonprofit Kids First Chicago. Though a few said they’d prefer in-person instruction for their children, others said their main frustration with the ongoing impasse was feeling like they weren’t being included in the decision-making process.
“We demand a legitimate seat at the table for CPS parents as negotiations continue,” said Blaire Flowers, the parent of a North Lawndale College Prep freshman. “If CPS and CTU can’t come to an agreement that allows our kids to resume learning immediately, then they clearly need some adults in the room who can figure it out.”
Tierra Pearson has three kids in the CPS system at Clemente High School and DePriest Elementary. She said the behavior of CPS and CTU was “making our children suffer,” and the back and forth between the district and union had “turned Chicago into a political circus.”
“We are all human beings and have different views and opinions, but we can find some common ground to agree upon,” Pearson said. “Reasonable adults should be able to agree upon what’s best for the safety and well-being of all families at this time with the increased COVID rate.”
Pearson said she’d hoped to have a remote learning option for all three of her children because her youngest has health issues, adding a “one-size-fits-all approach just will not work for all families, schools and situations.”
“We need flexible learning options that can meet the needs of different families,” she said.
Tribune’s Stephanie Casanova contributed.