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Chicago Public Schools would go remote Wednesday under new CTU proposal, but mayor rejects it: ‘We will not relent’

The Chicago Teachers Union unveiled a new proposal Saturday that would have remote learning start Wednesday districtwide if school officials agree to a set of additional COVID-19 safety protocols.

But even before the union’s announcement was complete, Mayor Lori Lightfoot shot down the idea.

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Under the latest offer, CTU members would return to classrooms starting Monday — not for formal classes but to distribute laptops and help students sign up for a weekly, school-based COVID-19 testing program. Remote learning would begin Wednesday with in-person classes slated to return Jan. 18, if case numbers hold right.

Scores of Chicago Public Schools staff and students are already absent from in-person classes because they have COVID-19 or are quarantining because of possible exposure. But Lightfoot, CPS and public health officials have repeatedly opposed a wholesale return to remote learning during the standoff that so far has resulted in three days of canceled classes.

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“CTU leadership, you’re not listening. The best, safest place for kids to be is in school. Students need to be back in person as soon as possible,” read a statement from Lightfoot and CPS CEO Pedro Martinez Saturday. “That’s what parents want. That’s what the science supports. We will not relent.”

But at a news conference Saturday at which civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson also appeared, CTU President Jesse Sharkey argued that the new offer “would solve all the outstanding issues, would give parents the clarity that we will begin instruction next week and begin in-person instruction on the 18th.”

“We’re not talking about a long, indefinite period where schools are remote,” Sharkey said, but a temporary measure while “we’re dealing with the high point of a surge.”

He contended that “what the mayor is basically offering instead is no instruction at all. … This impasse is hurting students.”

As of Thursday, the union had demanded a negative PCR test for students to return to class, but the new proposal would scrap that requirement for a plan in which 10% of a school’s population would be tested at random each week, plus those who already opted for the voluntary weekly testing program.

Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey, from left, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Vice President Stacy Davis Gates appear at a news conference Saturday where the union introduced a new proposal for remote learning in Chicago Public Schools.
Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey, from left, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Vice President Stacy Davis Gates appear at a news conference Saturday where the union introduced a new proposal for remote learning in Chicago Public Schools. (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)

The metrics to switch a school to remote learning would be 20% or more of a school’s CTU staff isolating or quarantining because of COVID-19, or 25% if there are fewer than 100 employees at the school.

Schools would also be shut down for in-person learning for elementary schools if 30% of homerooms have more than 30% students isolating, and high schools and middle school programs if more than 25% of the student body are isolating.

Another new proposal is demanding a greater substitute teacher stipend of $1,000 compared to the normal $420 monthly stipend.

The union also continues to call for regular mask distribution and for reinstating the health screener at schools that want that option.

“Despite the fact that school districts across the state and nation are taking an opt-out approach to COVID-19 testing, Mayor Lightfoot has called the COVID-19 nasal swab test an ‘invasive medical procedure,’” the union said, adding that under its proposal, students could still opt out of screening.

Jennifer Johnson, the CTU’s chief of staff, said union members want students back in school but they also want additional safety measures. CTU would also like all staff to provide a negative COVID-19 test in the coming week, she said, adding union members are willing to participate in contact tracing on a school building level.

“We’re really looking for collaboration here,” she said.

Saturday evening, CPS issued a point-by-point response to the union’s offer, agreeing to several of CTU’s requests on masking, screeners and testing but rejecting others, including the central feature of the proposal, a pause in in-person classes until Jan. 18.

Again calling the union’s actions an “illegal strike,” CPS said the sides are “growing closer on many important issues. We’re confident that continued negotiations will support the return to in-person learning next week.”

If negotiators at CPS are willing to reach an agreement, the CTU’s governing body then has to approve it before the rank-and-file members vote. If no agreement with CPS is reached, members would continue to stay home until Jan. 18 with hopes they could teach their classes remotely.

Martinez has signaled he favors testing 10% of unvaccinated people in schools each week plus those who voluntarily sign up, though parental consent would be required for any testing. But on other issues, the district and union are further apart.

Teacher Chris Meenaghan puts signs on the back of his truck before leading a Chicago Teachers Union caravan from Union Park to City Hall Wednesday. Chicago Public Schools classes were canceled Wednesday, Thursday and Friday after a CTU vote in favor of refusing in-person work until further COVID-19 safety measures are implemented.
Teacher Chris Meenaghan puts signs on the back of his truck before leading a Chicago Teachers Union caravan from Union Park to City Hall Wednesday. Chicago Public Schools classes were canceled Wednesday, Thursday and Friday after a CTU vote in favor of refusing in-person work until further COVID-19 safety measures are implemented. (John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune)

For one, they have differing proposed metrics on when a school should shut down and go remote. CTU wants that to happen when 20% of the staff is in isolation or quarantine, while CPS says 40%. Martinez also said there can be no districtwide metric to shut down in-person learning for all schools, as there was during the previous reopening agreement last school year.

Late Saturday, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced his office had secured 350,000 rapid antigen tests for CPS thanking CEO Robert Ford of Abbott and “the team at SHIELD Illinois.”

The mayor tweeted a thanks to the governor for “agreeing to sell” the tests to CPS.

That came the teachers union expressed disappointment in a report from political news site capitolfax.com, confirmed by Pritzker’s office Friday, that the state had offered CPS vaccination clinics, masks and SHIELD tests to CPS, but the city didn’t take up the offer.

On Saturday, the governor’s office gave a more detailed explanation of what happened, saying that it began conducting vaccine clinics in schools last May and offered to assist in CPS vaccination efforts, but the district chose to conduct its own. The governor’s office also said the state later got a request to send its teams to CPS in the last week of October and proposed a plan within days.

Following a Nov. 4 request from the Chicago Department of Public Health, the state and CPS reached an agreement to provide a vaccination clinic on the West Side eight days later, when the district canceled school to encourage young people to get the shot.

But according to the governor’s office, CPS then “raised objections to future clinics,” requiring an extra background check, as well as a tuberculosis test for staff administering the clinics, the latter being something no other school districts in the state requested.

CPS said in an earlier statement that the district receives federal funding for school testing and that the state’s testing resources are for school districts outside Chicago.

“We would welcome any additional testing resources,” the city added.

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The city did not have an immediate response to the governor’s office’s latest statement about vaccine clinics.

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The latest developments on the CPS impasse comes as the district reports 1,025 new student COVID-19 cases and 939 new staff cases from Monday to Thursday, a record for both groups.

Despite the numbers, Chicago’s public health commissioner, Dr. Allison Arwady, has insisted that schools with proper mitigation are the safest place for children.

Jackson said at the union news conference Saturday he appreciates Lightfoot’s point that students are better off in schools but, “on the other hand, teachers want safe working conditions.”

Jackson also said he wanted to see the CTU and school officials continue to sit down in person and come up with a plan.

“I’m surprised they’re not meeting right now. ... We don’t have time to wait,” he said. “My job is to try to get them back at the table ... not communicate on Zoom.”

Sharkey said this proposal provides a comprehensive solution that has an exact date to return to in-person instruction.

He added that whether in-person learning being better than remote is beside the point, comparing the situation to when a blizzard shuts down school because it’s too dangerous for students and staff to get there. While in the past school had to be canceled altogether, now remote learning is an option.

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