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CTU files challenge to delay CPS reopening next month

If the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board agrees with the union, CPS’ planned return to in-person learning could go on hold for weeks as the two sides work through their differences.

Assistant Principal Matthew Swanson walks inside Whitney M. Young Magnet High School on the first day back to school Tuesday morning, Sept. 8, 2020.
The Chicago Teachers Union is going to labor court in an attempt to delay the reopening of Chicago Public Schools.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The Chicago Teachers Union is making its second legal attempt in as many months to put Chicago Public Schools’ reopening plans on hold, accusing the district of illegally refusing to negotiate health and safety conditions before ordering teachers back into classrooms.

The union returned to the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board with the new charge Monday, less than a month before teachers are expected to start returning to schools for the first time during the pandemic.

The CTU is seeking an injunction that would force the district to negotiate in good faith and reach agreements with the union on several issues before schools reopen, which the union says CPS has not done.

Following that process could delay the anticipated Jan. 4 return for preschool and special education cluster program teachers and staff and could afford the union a closer look at the district’s health protocols during a deadly pandemic before sending its members back to schools.

“CPS has stonewalled us for months as we’ve been trying to bargain enforceable safety standards for our district-run schools,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said in a statement. “We want our schools open as well, but we want it done safely, and not on the backs of the majority Black and Latinx students we serve.”

CPS spokeswoman Emily Bolton wrote in a statement that the district has already adjusted its health protocols based on input from the union and that schools are safe and ready to reopen.

“Given the learning loss and missed opportunities for our children, the discussion can no longer be focused on whether or not to reopen but how to do so safely,” Bolton said, adding that CPS “must open our doors in order to counter the dire educational consequences for students who need support the most.”

The CTU’s new request for injunctive relief has been expected ever since the IELRB denied its first attempt last month, ruling that relief wasn’t warranted at that time because CPS had not yet set a firm reopening date. The board suggested it would consider a request once a date was identified — which has since happened.

CPS announced last month that preschoolers and children with complex disabilities would be allowed back into classrooms Jan. 11 and all elementary schools would reopen Feb. 1, with those respective teachers and staff ordered back a week before their students.

Last week, CPS CEO Janice Jackson reaffirmed the reopening plans, which will take place even if a fraction of families opt to send students back. Monday is the deadline for families to notify the district if their students are returning or continuing remote learning. All staff members — unless they can show documented health concerns — are expected to report to school buildings, Jackson said.

The union and district have met regularly since the start of the pandemic last winter, including nine times in the past month. The CTU has said those discussions have not been fruitful because CPS has presented its ideas as final with no leeway. CPS, meanwhile, has said the union has not given any specific proposals or suggested improvements.

The CTU’s stance is that there are countless health and safety factors that go into a reopening decision, and there should be ways to hold the district accountable for enforcing its health standards instead of simply trusting CPS’ word. CPS views the issue of reopening more narrowly and one that falls under its sole discretion.

If the labor relations board agrees with the CTU, bargaining could put the planned reopening on hold for weeks as the two sides work through their differences. The CTU said is expects its case to be heard later this month.