As the fight continues over the safe reopening of Chicago Public Schools in the midst of a raging public health crisis, the Chicago Teachers Union has released for the first time a list of demands it wants met before members return to schools, including lower COVID-19 test positivity rates, testing and vaccination protocols and changes to both hybrid and remote learning.
Some of the demands are likely to face strong and immediate rejection by city officials who have been adamant that it’s up to them to decide how and when the nation’s third-largest school district will return to classrooms for the first time since March.
The district and the union have maintained an increasingly abrasive and hostile relationship, perhaps the least collaborative of any major public school system in the nation, as the standoff over reopening schools continues. The CTU’s public release of demands after months of inaction at the bargaining table — which includes about a dozen unproductive meetings in the past month — harkens back to the weeks leading up to last fall’s 11-day strike that was the union’s longest in three decades.
After the union threatened a strike vote in August when Mayor Lori Lightfoot was planning to send teachers and students back to schools to start the fall, the table appears set once again for the threat of a work stoppage, an option the CTU is considering. There does not appear to be enough time for agreements to be reached on all of these demands before preschool and special education cluster program staffers are scheduled to return Jan. 4.
“The CTU is putting forward a safe reopening plan that undercuts CPS’ ability to lie about us being the people who are hurting education,” reads a preliminary document that the CTU plans to publicize this week. “We will go back to in-person school when CPS can demonstrate that they have taken our concerns seriously.”
CPS spokesman James Gherardi said in a statement that district representatives will continue meeting with the union, “but proposals that contradict public health guidance and reduce instructional time will not be accepted.” He said that after 43 meetings since June, this is the first written proposal related to in-person instruction that the CTU has submitted.
The union’s demands, approved by the 800-member House of Delegates Wednesday evening, all fall under one of three categories: Safety, equity and trust.
Among the equity demands that could be the least agreeable for CPS are the CTU’s rejection of simultaneous teaching — in which teachers instruct students in classrooms and remotely at the same time — and a proposed reduction of remote learning screen time by one hour each day. CPS’ current plan only works with simultaneous teaching and would otherwise need a redesign. And schools chief Janice Jackson said this week that a reduction in online instruction would be a non-starter, despite complaints by families all fall.
The CTU is also demanding clear public health criteria for opening and closing schools and is proposing a 3% test positivity threshold. Schools would reopen citywide for all students and staff if the rate is lower, and would close if it’s higher, the union said, with community-by-community decisions also possible if rates vary. The city’s seven-day rolling average stood at 13.1% Thursday.
City health officials have previously said they would look to a case doubling metric, closing schools if total cases citywide were doubling in less than 18 days. Gherardi, the CPS spokesman, called the union’s proposed metrics “arbitrary standards that are not based on actual public health recommendations,” and said “no public health leaders have endorsed the positivity rate threshold [of 3%] requested by the CTU.”
New York City, home of the country’s largest school district, used a 3% threshold when it closed schools last month — though officials have since reopened while the city sits above that benchmark. Case totals and test positivity have been the most widely used metrics across the country.
Other safety proposals by the CTU include enforceable protocols on masks, cleaning, health screening, PPE, social distancing and ventilation. CPS has said it would implement policies on all of those issues, but the union has said there need to be tighter rules for when policies aren’t followed.
On testing, the union wants to target a quarter of district staff on a weekly basis, rotating each week and focusing on communities that have the highest positivity rates. CPS has said it’s developing a plan for regular rapid testing of asymptomatic workers but has released few details. The CTU is also demanding comprehensive contact tracing and, once a vaccine is available, access to a vaccine starting with the neighborhoods that have been hardest hit by the virus.
In its “trust” category, the union is calling for a CPS-CTU joint committee on COVID-19 that would include independent experts who could conduct inspections, investigations and issue directives, and is asking for parents, community members, principals and building engineers to be brought to the bargaining table. The CTU is also looking for safety committees to be established at each school.
“The pandemic has closed schools. By not meeting these needs, CPS is keeping them shut,” the CTU document reads.
CTU leaders in recent days have tried to preempt any blame the union might receive for a delay in reopening by redirecting the onus to City Hall. CTU President Jesse Sharkey said in a livestreamed update to members Tuesday that he didn’t want Lightfoot pushing a narrative that schools are closed because of the union. He instead wanted to make clear that the pandemic forced school closures and poor public health conditions have kept them from reopening.
The CTU earlier this week filed a challenge with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board seeking an injunction against CPS’ planned reopening in January. If the board sides with the union, the plans to return to classrooms would almost certainly be delayed.