Chicago Teachers Union members have until Wednesday afternoon to vote on an agreement to reopen schools for in-person learning amid the omicron-fueled COVID-19 surge. An approved deal would mark the end to the latest labor dispute between the school district and the union, which has been a hallmark of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s time in office.
In the meantime, schools across the district are welcoming students back to classrooms Wednesday. Teachers returned to buildings Tuesday, as electronic ballots opened for union rank-and-file members to weigh the Chicago Public Schools plan.
The proposal passed the first hurdle on Monday, when the union’s 600-member governing body, its House of Delegates, voted to suspend its temporary remote work action that led the district to cancel classes for five days. Just under two-thirds of the House of Delegates supported advancing the CPS measure, which has been criticized by some teachers and union leaders as not strong enough in the fight against COVID-19.
“This hasn’t been easy on anyone, and we still have things that we need,” CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said Monday. “This agreement provides us with some infrastructure to implement those things and to make sure, the best that we can, that we are protecting people as best as we can.”
Some teachers felt the action was rushed and poorly planned, while others said they didn’t get enough out of the final deal to justify the disruption. Questions remain about how aspects of CPS’ proposal, such as expanded testing, will be executed if the plan is approved.
In a Tuesday statement to the media, CPS said it will “promptly share” the details and timeline for implementation of new COVID-19 policies and procedures once CTU votes to ratify the new safety agreement.
Some of the negotiations were centered on a metric that spells out when an individual school would temporarily transition to remote learning. The union had called for a districtwide bench mark as well — a set of guidelines were included in the 2021 safety agreement — but CPS CEO Pedro Martinez indicated the virus should be combated school by school.
The CPS proposal would allow a school to go virtual when 30% or more of a school’s classroom teachers are absent for two consecutive days because they tested positive; or when more than 40% of a school’s student population has been directed to quarantine or isolate during a COVID-19 surge, among other scenarios.
CPS had set the teacher absence bar at 40% in a proposal last week, while CTU had pushed for a school to go remote when 20% or more of its staff is in isolation or quarantine.
Under the CPS proposal up for a vote, teachers would report to buildings if their school goes virtual, and affected schools could resume in-person instruction after five school days. It’s unclear if there are any schools that would start remote learning this week because they meet the proposed metrics.
CTU chief of staff Jen Johnson suggested that Spry Elementary in Little Village — where the union held a press event Monday — could be at that threshold based on student absences. CTU President Jesse Sharkey said Monday the union is “aware of at least one other (school) … I think that one of the things that we suspect is going to happen is that as testing improves, we’re going to get a better sense of how much COVID is coming into our buildings.”
Testing was a hot-button topic as well. A take-home test kit initiative over the holidays was a bust, and the district has not ramped up its in-school weekly testing program the way it has pledged. Martinez has promised 40,000 weekly tests could be administered through the program, which is voluntary for students and mandatory for unvaccinated staff members. Nearly 34,000 nasal swabs were taken the week before winter break, the most so far this school year.
More than 53,000 students had signed up for the free testing program as of Thursday, the district said. As part of its proposal, CPS is focusing its efforts on increasing program registrations through phone banks, where staff can get paid for performing such outreach. Families would receive an incentive to sign up for testing, though details were not included in CPS’ plan.
The goal is to test at least 10% of the student population of every school each week, though it’s unclear what happens if there are not enough sign-ups. CTU wanted an opt-out program where any student could be tested unless a parent said no, like other districts and schools do, but Lightfoot called that idea “morally repugnant.”
COVID-19 testing would be available to all staff this week under CPS’ proposal, which also calls for additional testing opportunities for symptomatic students. CPS said it will obtain at least 350,000 tests — presumably from the state — to satisfy the extra demand.
CPS said it also wants to work with CTU to get more students vaccinated. Slightly more than half of the district’s students ages 12 and older are fully vaccinated and about a quarter of students ages 5 to 11 have received at least one dose, according to district data. About 330,000 students are enrolled in CPS, the nation’s third-largest school district. CPS says about 91% of staff is fully vaccinated.
KN95 masks would be distributed to staff and students under CPS’ plan, which does not specify the number of masks that will be dispensed. The proposal would also allow school safety leaders to restore the daily health questionnaire from the last school year to enter buildings; schools to expand contact tracing efforts; and the district to increase stipends for substitute teachers.
Even if the CPS plan is approved by union members, there are some details that need to be worked out. Martinez would have to decide whether to recommend the Chicago Board of Education add instructional days to the school calendar. Teachers, meanwhile, would be paid for the lost days if CTU prevails in either of its unfair labor practice claims against the board, the union’s attorney said Monday.
Staff members who didn’t come to buildings didn’t get paid, unless they were authorized by the district to work remotely, Martinez said. Teachers complained of being locked out of their email and virtual classrooms, so they were unable to teach remotely or communicate with students.
Lightfoot has complained that the recurring disputes with CTU make Chicago schools less attractive to families, threatening the district’s future and prompting parents to pursue other educational options for their kids.
Previous conflicts include the 2019 teachers strike that put students out for more than two weeks of classes and a bitter, monthslong standoff over the reopening of schools after the pandemic’s arrival.
Lightfoot has also repeatedly blamed her battles with the teachers union on electoral politics, noting CTU leaders backed her opponent in the 2019 election and have been recurring critics of her administration. She complained in a national interview that the union wants to “take over running the city government,” for instance, and told an Alderman that the union will bad-mouth her “until I beat them again in the next election.”
The latest dispute took many residents by surprise, though it was months in the making as union leaders criticized conditions at schools as both sides failed to reach a safety agreement for the fall. Omicron’s surge, which has led to record COVID-19 cases across the United States and in Chicago, escalated the union’s concerns into a full crisis.
City leaders struggled at times to articulate a clear message or plan. After the CTU voted last week to go remote through the end of this week, for instance, Martinez told parents at a news conference that they could send their kids to school even though classes were canceled — a directive the district quickly went back on, as most principals lacked the staff to host students.
A few schools opened for in-person instruction Monday and even more offered “enrichment” activities for students who needed a place to be during the daytime, the district said.
“We are excited to welcome back to school buildings all our students, teachers and other members” Wednesday, CPS said in its statement.