CPS’ fall plan might include part-time return to classrooms, CTU says

A “preliminary framework” the district is expected to release Friday could include a hybrid model of remote and in-person learning, union leaders say.

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Second grade students listen during class at Roswell B. Mason Elementary School on the South Side, Nov. 1, 2019.

Students listen during class last fall at Roswell B. Mason Elementary School on the South Side.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file photo

Chicago Public Schools officials have discussed with the Chicago Teachers Union a hybrid plan that would include both in-person and remote learning, union leaders told the Chicago Sun-Times Thursday, a day before the district is expected to reveal its proposal for the fall.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has said the plan will kick off a month-long discussion with parents, teachers and students about what would be needed to keep families safe in the fall, with a final decision on in-person instruction coming near the end of August.

Though Lightfoot and CPS are saving the specifics of that plan for Friday, putting students in classrooms some days and at home others would mark a continued adjustment for hundreds of thousands of children months after schools closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

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“The health and safety of our students and staff is paramount, and our planning for the fall will be guided by the best available data and guidance from state and local health officials,” the mayor’s office said in a statement, calling Friday’s highly anticipated announcement a “preliminary framework.”

“We are speaking regularly with union leadership as we work to develop the strongest possible plans for the fall, and we will continue to engage a variety of stakeholders to ensure our plans best meet their needs,” the mayor’s office said.

Both the city and the union acknowledge full remote learning isn’t a reliable alternative to normal schooling no matter the planning that goes into it. Still, districts around the country, including the nation’s second-largest in Los Angeles, have announced they will provide remote education to start the school year. New York City and Chicago — the first and third largest districts — have not committed to doing so, however. NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio announced last week a hybrid model that could be similar to plans CPS discussed with the union. 

But having educators and students in school together without appropriate safety precautions is a non-starter for the CTU. The union this week called for a fully remote start to the fall because of those health and safety concerns, setting up another potential showdown with Lightfoot months after a historic 11-day strike last year.

Sharkey said another walkout isn’t a first choice for the union, but he questioned whether the district has fully planned for a safe return.

“Our frustration and our anxiety at this point is we don’t have a plan to negotiate, a plan to react to, a plan to make better,” Sharkey said Thursday. “We have ideas, and the ideas we’ve heard thus far include a blended experience, a hybrid experience. But it’s very short on details at this point.”

Sharkey said staggered schedules are a good way to make social distancing easier in the city’s often crowded school buildings, but only if that’s accompanied with nurses taking daily temperature checks at every school, consistent disinfecting of buildings, universal masks and proper social distancing.

“There’s a logic to a hybrid model,” he said. “It’s not a crazy idea, which is that this is a virus that’s passed along when people are in close physical proximity, talking and discussing things. And that’s a lot of what we do at school. So you’ve got to figure out a way to have fewer people in the building.

“A lot of the idea behind hybrid is you’ve got students alternating between in-person and remote learning, which means at any given time you can have fewer people in the classroom. ... It’s not that there isn’t a logic to what CPS is saying or what New York is saying — there is. It’s just that the time right now, we don’t yet have a clear enough criteria, and the way it looks in the country right now, we don’t think the conditions are right to start back in person.”

Sharkey likened an unsafe return to classrooms to running into a burning building, and raised the possibility that teachers could refuse to return to work if they don’t feel safe. The idea of refusing a return to work was broached at a virtual union town hall earlier this week attended by a few thousand members — a fraction of the full rank-and-file membership.

Asked whether teachers are willing to go back out on strike if their demands for the fall aren’t met, Sharkey said, “I think this is going to depend a lot on what things look like and whether we can get clear answers and whether there’s responsiveness.”

“If the answer to all those questions is no, then I think it’s not reasonable to expect for parents of students and for staff ... [not to] worry about whether or not we’re being asked to go into a burning building,” he said. “Because if we are, then that’s where I think you get in a situation where people could refuse to go. We’re a ways from that yet.”

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