CPS high school reopening agreement remains elusive

The teachers union has scheduled a meeting of its House of Delegates for Sunday, the day before thousands of teachers are due to report to high schools for the first time in a year.

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Assistant Principal Matthew Swanson walks inside Whitney M. Young Magnet High School on the first day back to school Tuesday morning, Sept. 8, 2020.

Assistant Principal Matthew Swanson walks inside Whitney M. Young Magnet High School on the first day of school in September — although students haven’t attended in-person yet.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

A final high school reopening agreement remains elusive between Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union just days before high school teachers are due to return to classrooms — and the union president said Thursday the next few days of negotiations will determine whether workers show up on Monday.

Though the range of issues is smaller and disagreement over those items is not as severe as the hostile K-8 negotiations in February, there are still a few unresolved concerns the union is expressing as COVID-19 infections once again rise in the city.

CPS officials have directed 5,350 high school teachers to return to buildings Monday with or without a CTU agreement, and about 26,000 students in grades 9-12 are expected back the following week.

Whether or not that timeline sticks is dependent on “how outrageous the board’s positions are as we go ahead,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey told a few hundred members at a virtual meeting Thursday that was closed to the public.

“I’ve heard people say, ‘Sharkey, I want a really definitive answer, am I going in on Monday?’” he said. “And my really definitive answer is, it depends on where we’re at.”

Bargaining is expected to continue through the weekend, and the CTU expects to convene its House of Delegates on Sunday to update those representative members on the status of negotiations. The governing body could vote on a potential agreement or, in the absence of agreeable terms, decide on some kind of collective action. Sharkey said that wouldn’t necessarily mean a refusal to work in-person — though that remains a possibility — and could instead be other, less disruptive tactics to pressure the district into an agreement.

The two sides are primarily negotiating over four key issues: Student schedules, remote work for staff whose students aren’t in-person, work-from-home accommodations and addressing increasing coronavirus transmission along with vaccinations for students and their families.

CPS has said most high schools will have their in-person students in schools two days each week, half attending Monday and Tuesday and the other half Thursday and Friday. Kids at smaller schools and those where few students opted to return — about 35 schools — are expected to be in-person four days per week.

The point of contention is around large schools that have huge numbers going back.

CPS has said those schools may have to consider splitting students into four cohorts that each attend one day per week, but the CTU is concerned that the threshold for those large schools might not be strict enough. At places such as Taft and Payton, where there are potentially more than 1,000 students planning to go back, it might not be possible to properly socially distance unless students are split into one-day-a-week groups, union leaders said. Based on the district’s current plan, it appears they’d be under the twice-a-week schedule.

The union also wants high school teachers to work remotely Wednesdays when students are learning virtually — like most K-8 teachers have done the past month — and teachers who don’t have any in-person students to work from home full time.

CTU leaders are also concerned by rising case numbers citywide and asked the district to push high school reopening back one week to figure out the seriousness of this new surge. To help address the problem, the union is asking CPS to develop a plan for those 16 and older — as well as their vulnerable family members — to receive shots through the district instead of having to search publicly. Older students have been found to transmit the virus like adults, although city officials said the most recent surge was having more impact adults over 18.

Illinois residents over the age of 16 — other than in Chicago — will be eligible for the vaccine Monday, while the city intends to expand its eligibility April 19, the same day high schools are tentatively scheduled to reopen. CPS officials said at last month’s school board meeting they’re working on a plan to vaccinate older students but details haven’t been announced. Gov. J.B. Pritzker recommended Thursday that any Chicagoans who haven’t had a chance at a shot in the city head to suburban sites.

Work-from-home accommodations, meanwhile, don’t appear to be as contentious of an issue as they were in K-8 negotiations. But the CTU is looking for exceptions to be made for those with child care conflicts, pregnant mothers and anyone not able to be vaccinated. Those with medical accommodations who have tried to get a shot but haven’t yet been able to will be allowed to stay home until two weeks after their second shot.

CPS representatives reiterated Thursday that they are still targeting the April 19 start date and said they believe “safe in-person learning is possible right now.”

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