CPS tells parents to keep children home Wednesday as CTU prepares for potential strike

The Chicago Teachers Union told workers to refuse to report in person Wednesday after failing to come to an agreement with the district over reopening conditions this week.

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A teacher charges her laptop while teaching outside DeWitt Clinton Elementary School in the West Rogers Park neighborhood to protest Chicago Public Schools’ reopening plan due to COVID-19 safety concerns, Thursday morning, Jan. 21, 2021.

A teacher charges her laptop while teaching outside DeWitt Clinton Elementary School in the West Rogers Park neighborhood to protest Chicago Public Schools’ reopening plan due to COVID-19 safety concerns, Thursday morning, Jan. 21, 2021.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The Chicago Teachers Union has told its members to work from home Wednesday after failing this week to reach an agreement with Chicago Public Schools over reopening conditions, a move that suspends in-person classes that had already resumed and puts the union on the verge of a strike if a deal isn’t reached over the next few days.

Leaders of both the union and the school district had held out hope that the impasse could be resolved ahead of Wednesday’s deadline for thousands of elementary and middle school staff to report to schools, but the disagreements proved too large to sort out.

The immediate implication of the union’s collective decision to reject in-person work because of health and safety concerns is about 3,200 preschool and special education students will return to remote learning Wednesday, just two weeks after resuming in-person instruction for the first time since last March.

The broader and potentially more damaging consequence if the district responds by cutting off remote work and the union goes out on strike could be CPS classes coming entirely to a stop — even for high schools, which are not due to return to classrooms anytime soon and have final exams scheduled for next week.

For now, CPS and CTU have bought a few more days to keep negotiating, and remote classes are expected to continue through this week.

“So it’s come to this,” the union wrote in an email to members Tuesday afternoon. “Short of some late-breaking change, *all* CTU members will begin working remotely tomorrow, Wednesday, January 27. And if CPS retaliates against members for exercising their right to a safe workplace, *all* CTU members will stop working on Thursday and set up picket lines at their schools.”

CPS officials said all last week that the union’s collective refusal of in-person work would be deemed an “illegal strike,” indicating staff could be locked out of remote work and their pay withheld. But Mayor Lori Lightfoot said at an evening news conference Tuesday that “we’re not there yet.” Lightfoot said she does “not expect [CTU members] to violate the directive of their union” and CPS will allow remote learning to continue.

Even so, she was “deeply disappointed that after all this time, all these sessions, all the work to make sure that our CPS schools and buildings are safe, no agreement has yet been reached.”

“Teachers, of course we want you to be safe,” the mayor said. “Of course we take your health and safety incredibly seriously. And we have built a plan to make sure that you can get the vaccine. But we need you to work with us. We need you to talk to your leadership. Because we can’t get there unless we get there together.”

Lightfoot said she “remains steadfast” in her order for in-person K-8 classes to resume Monday, aiming to reach an agreement by then.

Schools chief Janice Jackson wrote in a letter to families that “the district has no choice but to ask parents to keep your children home” Wednesday.

“Without assurance that there is adequate teaching staff for in-person learning, we must prioritize student safety and ask that parents keep their children home for remote learning tomorrow,” Jackson wrote.

The union regrouped in the evening at a quasi-celebratory virtual meeting at which union leaders took it as a victory that the city didn’t escalate the labor strife by locking out teachers from remote work. All members, including clerks, technology coordinators and other workers who have been at schools since August, have been told by the CTU to work from home moving forward.

The CTU, which on Tuesday requested a mediator to help broker a deal, has said its initial action planned is not technically a strike since educators plan to continue working remotely.

“We still have some things to win, and we have every indication that we’re gaining,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey told the thousands of members on the call about negotiations with CPS.

Asked by a union member what a strike would look like during a pandemic if CPS doesn’t allow educators to work remotely, Sharkey said “hopefully we get an agreement and don’t find out.”

CTU and CPS have agreed on most issues, he said, including school sanitization, PPE, social distancing and even ventilation, which had been a sticking point in negotiations. There have been “real improvements” in the district’s testing plan, Sharkey said, and CPS has proposed a health metric that could be used as a threshold for opening and closing schools.

The largest remaining disagreements are over whether teachers who have medically vulnerable relatives at home should receive accommodations for remote work, and whether members should be required to return to classrooms before they receive a vaccination.

CPS said it gave the union an “updated comprehensive proposal” Tuesday that included: Testing school staff twice per month and students in the 10 ZIP codes with the highest infection rates once a month; vaccine prioritization for staff in communities with high rates; and expanded accommodations for remote work.

The district’s proposed closing threshold is for a school to revert to remote learning for two weeks if transmission occurs in three student pods. At the district level, a joint CPS-CTU committee would recommend the district as a whole suspend all in-person classes if the positivity rate of tests administered to staff and students reaches 3%, CPS proposed.

The union is still preparing for a work stoppage nonetheless, with strike coordinators reaching out to elected school delegates to discuss next steps. If the CTU walks in the coming days, the union expects picket lines to form at schools across the city in its second strike in 15 months.

About 3,800 preschool and special education cluster program teachers and staff were ordered to return to schools earlier this month for the resumption of in-person learning for their students. Another 10,000 staff members in kindergarten through eighth grades were due back Monday, but CPS pushed that date back to Wednesday to create more time for negotiations.

K-8 schools are scheduled to reopen Feb. 1 for an estimated 71,000 students — out of 191,000 children in those grades — who have said they plan to return. It’s not clear if all those students will return — only half of the pre-K and special education students who opted in to in-person learning have returned this month, accounting for 19% of the total eligible.

“It’s horrifying. All the teachers are completely freaking out,” said one elementary teacher, who asked not to be named. She questioned why CPS couldn’t wait to start in-person classes until teachers are vaccinated in the near future.

“It’s such a nightmare. It’s so sad to hear but some teachers are saying, ‘I am going to go to work. I can’t not get a paycheck.’ It’s a pandemic and so many people are going through so many things.”

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