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Teachers union approves COVID-19 safety deal to end standoff with Chicago Public Schools; dispute-fatigued parents hope new safety measures hold as buildings reopen

The Chicago Teachers Union has voted to approve the COVID-19 agreement with Chicago Public Schools, formally putting an end to their latest dispute over school safety, though the omicron surge that prompted the conflict rages on.

The CTU rank-and-file narrowly passed the measure Wednesday, with about 56% of the vote in favor. That came hours after schools reopened following five days of canceled classes that resulted from the impasse, when union members refused to teach in person.

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Union President Jesse Sharkey said the outcome was a “clear show of dissatisfaction” with Mayor Lori Lightfoot. “It’s outrageous that teachers, school nurses, counselors and more had to endure a week of being locked out by the mayor just to get a commitment from her bargaining team to provide every student with an N95 mask in a pandemic,” he said.

CPS reported that almost 89% of teachers showed up for work Wednesday. Officials also said no district-run buildings had to switch to schoolwide remote learning Wednesday but that they were still assessing how many classrooms or buildings might have to pivot to remote learning Thursday, adding that information would be shared with school communities and on the CPS COVID-19 data dashboard.

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Some schools had as many as 10 classrooms that had to pause in-person classes Wednesday because of high rates of coronavirus cases or close contacts, the district said.

In what’s become a recurring scene since the COVID-19 pandemic began, school officials in the morning welcomed back students, most of whom had spent only two days inside a classroom since winter break began more than three weeks ago.

Outside Kenwood Academy High School on the South Side early Wednesday, a number of parents expressed relief their kids were back in class.

But one mom saw the school stoppage as a wasted opportunity to improve safety for students.

“No, I’m not happy that school is back in place because I feel that (CPS) didn’t do anything to guarantee the safety for the health of the students,” Kenwood Academy parent Kimberly Jones said after dropping off her daughter.

CTU leaders have said their work action — though it didn’t force a temporary return to remote learning as a large majority of members wanted — resulted in an agreement that provides enhanced COVID-19 safeguards like more masks and testing and a specific metric for when a school will pause in-person learning.

An internal CTU analysis, obtained by the Tribune, details how some union leaders viewed the standoff. Under “rough overall assessment,” union leaders wrote that they increased testing, forced a district pause on classroom time and won a “useful” metric for shuttering schools with high case numbers.

“We accomplished more than nothing, but less than we wanted,” the union leadership said in a slide that acknowledged “it was a bruising fight” and workers might not get paid for the four days.

“Some members will say, ‘It wasn’t worth it.’ But we are grown-ups,” the slide continued. “We realize — when we walk out, we don’t get to know the outcome in advance. We also would have had NOTHING had we ducked this fight.”

The union said its action was “hurt” by things it couldn’t control, like Lightfoot and “the national politics of ‘return to school.’” And it expressed worry about “the divisiveness of COVID in our union.” Its top next step: “Cannot allow differences of opinion on this vote and tactics to impact our long term solidarity.”

With scores of students and staff members already in quarantine and case rates still high, it remains to be seen if most schools can remain fully open.

A record 10,898 students and about 2,300 adults were in isolation Wednesday because they tested positive for COVID-19 or in quarantine because they came in contact with an infected person. Fully vaccinated, asymptomatic people are not required to quarantine.

CPS says about 91% of its staff is fully vaccinated. Just over half of CPS students 12 and older are fully vaccinated, while about a quarter of students ages 5 to 11 have received at least one dose, according to district data.

Kenwood Academy High School students return to school on Jan. 12, 2022, after five days off for COVID-19 protocol discussions between Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union.
Kenwood Academy High School students return to school on Jan. 12, 2022, after five days off for COVID-19 protocol discussions between Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union. (Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)

Earlier this week, CTU’s House of Delegates, its 600-member governing body, voted to suspend its temporary remote work action after the tentative deal with CPS.

In Jones’ view, the unexpected school break was counterproductive.

“All they did was have more days off,” she said. “A lot of the children were probably mingling, doing other things, so there was no reason for them to be out of school if you weren’t going to make sure that there was going to be testing before coming back to school.”

Jones added: “I do not feel that it was time (return to class) because kids are germy. Right now it’s flu season. It’s pneumonia season.”

In addition to the direct impact of the pandemic, CPS is also struggling with a nationwide substitute teacher shortage. In some cases, mostly in high schools, that has resulted in classes being moved into auditoriums, but the district said most of those students were receiving remote instruction from a teacher in quarantine.

Officials said they’ve begun several initiatives to address the shortage and incentivize new substitute teacher recruits.

In some cases, especially at the high school level, students may be moved to an auditorium if a specific class, such as physical education, can’t be offered due to a staff absence. However, the majority of our students who are in auditoriums are logged into remote classes and are receiving instruction from their teachers, who are teleworking due to COVID-19 quarantine restrictions.

Outside Budlong Elementary on the North Side, where she was dropping off her 4-year-old daughter, Sofia, for preschool, Ester Burke said she had mixed emotions about the resumption of schools, though she wished the district waited longer to bring students back as cases of COVID-19 have been continuously rising.

Because she works from home, Burke said it’s easier to adjust if her daughter has to shift to remote learning, but she knows many families don’t have the same circumstances.

“I understand needing to go back also because parents have to physically go to work and feed their kids,” she said. “I have split feelings on it, but the back-and-forth is also not good for the kids.”

Burke said her first thought during the latest CPS labor dispute was the union and the city should have “figured this out before coming off of holiday break.”

“For kids, the transition of going back to school and then pulling them out and then sending them back, all within a week or so, is not quite healthy mentally or emotionally, especially at a young age,” she said.

Rosalyn Mendoza walks her daughter Adelyn Mendoza, 5, to her preschool at Budlong Elementary School in Chicago on Jan. 12, 2022.
Rosalyn Mendoza walks her daughter Adelyn Mendoza, 5, to her preschool at Budlong Elementary School in Chicago on Jan. 12, 2022. (Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune)

Burke said after any kind of break, the chance of another uptick in cases is high. With the pattern possibly repeating itself after spring break, Burke said, the district and union should start planning in advance, adding that schools may need to look into unconventional means of operation to meet the needs of different families.

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“The school system is going to have to change with the times and if that means splitting up how students are learning, like having your schools open to have some staff members that can actually teach children but still have remote learning available, then they’re going to have to do that,” Burke said.

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Kenwood dad Demarcus Anderson said his daughter had been able to keep herself motivated even during Zoom learning, but he said the social distancing from her friends can be difficult.

“It’s been hard mentally because they’re separated. One minute they’re in school and the next thing they’re quarantining and they’re stuck indoors. It’s hard to adapt.”

Mom Shamar White said at-home learning can be disruptive to her family’s usual schedule, but placed some blame on planning during the current surge.

“I think it’s just more of trying to keep a structure going for them — that’s the hard thing — and the family,” White said.

“When the kids are home, we have to think about grocery shopping and feeding them and schedules. Things get a lot more complicated. We’ve been through this before. It feels like the schools could have prepared better after the holidays for them to come back. Instead ... they’re at home and not doing anything.”

Bertha Treadwell said her granddaughter, a Kenwood Academy student, needs the structure of in-person learning to perform at her best.

“She’s one of those hands-on students. She needs to be in the classroom. She was an honors student in eighth grade and then she came here and they were working remotely, her grades started dropping,” Treadwell said. “... It was hard for her to stay focused. And even she said, ‘I’ll be glad when school starts back.’”

Treadwell added that kids lose interest in online learning. “It’s not the same as being in the classroom. It’s not. They need that interaction, without a doubt. I’m so glad that school is back in, I don’t know what to do.”

Sterling Haukom Anderson brought her 7-year-old son Langston to Budlong School Wednesday and said she was still “a little nervous” even though he’s fully vaccinated.

“It’s a little scary,” she said. “I trust his teachers and the administration there at Budlong, but I’m still nervous of him being in the classroom and not knowing how others are feeling health-wise.”

But after two weeks off for winter break and another five days of canceled classes, she said it’s good for her son to “even just get out of the house. ... Because this happened right after winter break, they essentially did not have school for three weeks and that’s just a lot, a lot of missed learning.”

She did wish that the school gave an option for remote learning the last five days.

Moving forward, Haukom Anderson said she hopes all parents understand the importance of vaccinating their children if they are able.

State Rep. La Shawn Ford also said he’s also aiming to expand vaccination rates, particularly given that children in areas where fewer people are inoculated are more likely to miss in-person classes, deepening racial inequities in CPS.

“We’re talking, going on two years now, a pandemic of academic loss,” said Ford, a Chicago Democrat. “When students in these communities have to quarantine because their test positive rate is so high, that means these young people will fall further behind academically. It’s a failure on the city’s part.”

He said his push to vaccinate more children and families is about “doing everything we can” to get students back in classrooms with healthy and safe environments.

“We need to send the message that vaccines are working,” Ford said. “The more access to testing and vaccines on the West Side, the better off. It makes no sense that it’s not convenient enough for families still. We have to tailor our approach, because what works for one community doesn’t necessarily work for another. It’s about meeting parents where they’re at, eliminating their hesitancy and making them comfortable, providing education and on-site vaccinations.”

Tribune’s José M. Osorio contributed.

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