CPS, CTU ‘having better conversations’ about reopening but need an agreement ASAP, union says

The window for teachers and the district to come to terms is “really getting down to the eleventh hour,” union president Jesse Sharkey said a little over a week before thousands more teachers are set to return.

SHARE CPS, CTU ‘having better conversations’ about reopening but need an agreement ASAP, union says

The window for the Chicago Teachers Union to reach an agreement with Chicago Public Schools officials over a safe school reopening is “really getting down to the eleventh hour,” union president Jesse Sharkey said Friday, a little over a week before thousands more teachers are set to return to classrooms.

Speaking at a union protest, Sharkey said there have been “better conversations” with the district this week, but he showed frustration that the union’s “reasonable demands” are at times “falling on deaf ears.” With several times more teachers and staff set to return to schools Jan. 25 than did this week, the CTU is feeling the pressure to reach a resolution at the bargaining table.

“It’s forcing us into a corner,” Sharkey said. “Give us an agreement.”

Schools chief Janice Jackson said in an interview at Jordan Elementary in Rogers Park on Friday that the goal in negotiations with the CTU “has to be a compromise that tells us what is it that we need to do in order to have students back in the classroom.”

“I think everybody agrees, kids should be back in school,” Jackson said. President-elect Joe Biden “has said that’s one of his top priorities, to see students back in school. The federal government has stepped up to give us resources in order to do that safely. The time is now.

“I’m willing to have a compromise with the union on how we best do that so that we can balance choice for all parents and their health and safety concerns. But the conversation has to start with, ‘We believe children should be in schools,’ and let’s have a conversation about how we do that.”

Down the hall at Jordan Elementary, a total of eight preschoolers in two classrooms played with Legos, puzzles and action figures. Principal Gilberto Piedrahíta said the parents of 22 of 58 pre-K students originally opted to send their children back, but three backed out this week.

About 3,700 teachers and staff were expected to report to schools this week, and no more than 3,000 have showed up on any given day. On Friday, some teachers who are still in remote learning said they would call off work in protest of their colleagues being forced to return to schools. A union car caravan drove through the Near West Side and into the Loop. Some protesters gathered outside the downtown CPS headquarters.

The most pressing issue for the union is persuading CPS to reinstate the 87 teachers and staff members — down from 150 at the start of the week — who have been locked out of CPS digital accounts and aren’t being paid because they haven’t reported to their schools a single day last week or this week.

CPS’ strategy to discipline those workers “makes no sense,” Sharkey said, especially in the cases when teachers oversee classrooms without any students who have opted to go back to their schools.

Jackson said she believes “a lot has been made about resistance to coming to work this week,” and she’s happy that about three-quarters of the teachers and staff who have been ordered to report in-person have shown. But she acknowledged “that doesn’t mean that we ignore the concerns that people who have resisted coming in the buildings, we have to listen to those concerns.”

“I am fully aware of the fact that parents don’t want to hear back and forth from CPS and CTU,” Jackson said. “They want certainty, and they want a resolution. That’s the same thing that I want. ... That is what all parents want — at some point, their students will return when they’re comfortable.

“Everyone’s opinions matter. My job is I have to balance the interests of all our parents, not the ones who are loudest or the overwhelming majority or the ones who have other mechanisms for making their voices known. I also have to balance the fact that there are concerned staff around safety.”

Between a cluster of COVID-19 cases developing at McCutcheon Elementary, confirmed cases at several other schools and the staff no-shows, “we did have situations arise,” Jackson said. But the district’s plan accounted for each scenario, and contact tracing, notifications to close contacts and other protocols worked well, she said.

“So I feel confident in our plan, and this week has only increased my confidence in reopening.”

Jackson hopes news of inoculations on the horizon could make families and staff more comfortable with in-person school, but she knows the vaccine “is not going to be a silver bullet.

In negotiations, the union is also focused on protecting members who live with or care for vulnerable family members and establishing criteria for closing individual schools or the district as a whole if cases rise.

“Make a reasonable set of agreements with us that allow us to have a safe return,” Sharkey said. “We’re hoping the message gets through to CPS. It’s been frustrating. But I will say this, in the last few days, I’ve had better conversations. But we’re really getting down to the eleventh hour, we need an agreement.”

Asked what happens at the 12th hour, Sharkey said: “We’re not there yet.”

“Right now ... people are being ordered to go into work, and they’re saying, ‘I can’t go into work, I live with my 80-year-old mother who has an immune disorder and I’m worried that she’ll die.’ That is the 12th hour for them. ... So on [Jan 25.], it gets that much worse.

“What you have to understand is that you can’t run the schools without the people who work in the schools, and right now, individual educators are looking at the situation and saying, ‘I’m being told to choose between my life and my livelihood,’” Sharkey said. “And as this continues, it’s not a way to build trust with the public or build trust with educators. It’s going to get worse, not better.”

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