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CPS CEO won’t deny remote classes could be halted if teachers refuse to return to schools next week

“I think my point was clear that if the union refuses to work on Monday, that constitutes a strike,” Janice Jackson said Friday.

An empty hallway is seen at Edward K. Duke Ellington Elementary School in the South Austin neighborhood, Friday morning, Jan. 22, 2021.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

If Chicago teachers collectively refuse to return to their schools on Monday in defiance of Chicago Public Schools’ reopening orders, the district will consider the labor action a strike, schools chief Janice Jackson reiterated Friday, suggesting the outcome could be all classes coming to a halt.

The 25,000 rank-and-file members of the Chicago Teachers Union are voting through Saturday night on a resolution to continue working from home next week because of health concerns tied to in-person work.

CPS officials have said working from home is no longer an option for about 10,000 educators who have been told to report in person, nor for the 3,800 who have been ordered to schools since early January.

The union has repeatedly argued its action Monday would not be a work stoppage since teachers plan to continue working remotely. The CTU’s pending resolution instead says a strike would start if CPS “retaliates” by locking out all its teachers from remote work as it has done with about 90 pre-Kindergarten and special education staff members who were supposed to report to their schools earlier this month but haven’t shown up.

“We’re not locking teachers out,” Jackson insisted at a news conference at Ellington Elementary in Austin. “If the resolution passes and CTU moves forward, they are in effect having a strike. We will look for the results from the rank-and-file vote that is occurring right now, but our view of this is ... that would constitute a strike.”

Asked directly if the union’s collective rejection of in-person learning on Monday would result in all classes, including remote learning, being stopped, Jackson said: “I think my point was clear that if the union refuses to work on Monday, that constitutes a strike.

“I think what parents want to know is where we are,” Jackson said. “We’re waiting for the vote from CTU. And again, we’re working extremely hard to reach a deal. If they vote to strike, we will make sure parents are aware of what the next steps are at that time.

"Our goal is to reach an agreement by the end of this weekend. If something changes, we will notify parents just as we've done in the past when similar situations like this arise."

Asked if CPS would go to court to block a potential strike, Jackson said, “We’re not going to discuss our legal strategy at a press conference.”

The ramifications of a pause in learning could be huge for the 208,000 pre-kindergarten through eighth grade students in the district. It wasn’t clear what the implications could be for high schools.

Several outcomes are possible over the next few days.

CPS could cave to the union and allow all classes to continue remotely while negotiations continue. The city could stay true to its belief that the labor action is a strike and therefore end all classes. The district could also try to keep high schools running and instead halt only K-8 classes if teachers won’t report to work — but the CTU has said it would strike in that case, likely impacting high schools, too.

However unlikely it may seem, there could also be a reopening agreement reached between the CTU and CPS over the next couple days to avoid those scenarios. Jackson said she remains optimistic, and she expects the rate of negotiations to pick up.

But it wasn’t clear exactly where the compromise would come.

The union has said it doesn’t want teachers who aren’t vaccinated to be given in-person work against their will — the city disagrees, arguing its vaccination plan unveiled Friday is simply one piece of the mitigation puzzle.

The union has said it wants to stay remote until the city’s test positivity rate falls below 3% or the average daily case total over the span of a week dips under 400 — metrics the city is nowhere close to seeing and which the city’s health experts say aren’t necessary to return.

The passing of the CTU resolution is essentially a foregone conclusion even as voting by the full membership was still taking place Friday. The CTU released a statement Friday that said, in part, “educators will continue to teach their students safely, and remotely, on Monday, as they have been for months.” A “correction” was issued minutes later with that line removed.

“Our commitment remains the same: to protect lives as we work to land an enforceable agreement to safely return to our school buildings,” the union’s statement read. “Only Mayor Lightfoot and her team at CPS can trigger a work stoppage. Educators choose safety.”