Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union are negotiating daily but have so far not agreed how and when to reopen schools.
Teachers and staff say they have serious health and safety concerns that haven’t been addressed, while the school system says it has gone “above and beyond” public health guidelines to ensure buildings are safe.
So what exactly has been resolved and what are the remaining points of contention?
In a document circulated by the district Thursday, CPS laid out more than a dozen issues on which agreements have been reached with the union, including: daily health screeners and temperature checks; hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and PPE at every school; mandatory social distancing; air purifiers in every classroom; contact tracing; and ordering symptomatic people and close contacts to quarantine.
The rest of the outstanding issues “are primarily related to CTU requests that do not align to the best available guidance from public health experts,” the district said.
The CTU contends that it still doesn’t fully trust the district to make good on its promises or for mitigation protocols to be implemented uniformly at all 500 schools — especially when up to 71,000 K-8 students could return Feb. 1. But it has other, larger concerns that need to be sorted out.
“I think that there’s a number of other things that we’re going to be able to work out,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said Thursday. “Frankly, I’ve said all along that it’s not that we can’t make progress with the board, it’s that on the big issues they need to bargain with us in good faith and listen to our positions.”
The union’s stance is to allow any teachers or staff who are worried about their health to receive a COVID-19 vaccine before they’re required to return to their schools. That would mean a phased-in approach, CTU attorney Thad Goodchild said, in which union members begin reporting to their schools as soon as they receive their first dose.
Illinois teachers are in the next group of vaccinations that begin next week. Some social workers, psychologists and therapists have already received their inoculations.
“Pausing the resumption of in-person learning until members are vaccinated would not result in a lengthy delay,” Goodchild argued.
CPS, however, contends that it cannot mandate staff members to take the vaccine, and public health experts have said schools can reopen safely without waiting until vaccinations are administered.
There has not been movement on this issue.
The union has asked CPS to set a threshold for when the district as a whole and individual schools would reopen or close.
The CTU has proposed reopening schools when the city’s test positivity rate falls below 3% or when new daily cases dip below 400. Chicago on Thursday sat at 7.6% positivity and 862 daily cases. The positivity rate hasn’t fallen below 3% since March 5, and the daily case number hasn’t been under 400 since late in the summer.
CPS and CDPH said the union’s proposals don’t align with public health guidance. Instead, they’re focusing on a metric that measures how many days it takes for the number of cases in this second wave of the pandemic to double. Current conditions easily meet the city’s threshold, and officials have not looked likely to budge.
Public health experts consulted by the Chicago Sun-Times said it’s difficult to establish a single metric that determines when in-person school is safe and identified problems with the stances of both CPS and the CTU.
Voluntary in-person work
The CTU has proposed allowing teachers who want to voluntarily return to their schools to go back, Goodchild said, but all others to wait for their vaccine.
CPS is worried that idea would leave schools severely short-staffed, allowing “adult preferences to override a family’s educational choices.” CPS said it has provided accommodations to all teachers with vulnerable medical conditions but all others must report to work.
Many teachers posted on social media this week that their request for an accommodation based on having a vulnerable family member at home was rejected. The union has argued those members should be allowed to stay home.
CTU wants all in-person staff tested weekly and a quarter of students at 40 schools in zip codes with the highest positivity rates tested regularly. The union also wants every member and student tested when they first return to schools.
CPS is currently testing up to a quarter of staff members weekly. Over the past week, an average of 278 tests have been administered per day with two coming back positive. Over that time, 86 staff members were offered a test but declined.
CPS said public health experts haven’t recommended testing every teacher and student when they return, but it remains to be seen if the district could be open to a broader testing program. The school system is set to receive $720 million from the federal government to help reopen schools, and widespread testing has been recommended.
Health and safety committees
The CTU has proposed establishing health and safety committees at every school made up of teachers, staff and the principal with the power to stop in-person learning with a majority vote. The union also wants a district-wide committee with CPS and CTU representatives and independent experts who could resolve health and safety issues that arise.
CPS said it supports the creation of those committees but it doesn’t believe the school-level groups should have the authority to stop school operations — those decisions should be left to public health experts, the district said.