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Lightfoot demands schools reopen Monday, sets stage for potential CTU strike

The mayor declared late Friday that the Chicago Teachers Union “has not agreed to anything.” But the CTU retorted Lightfoot had ruined progress made at the bargaining table, tweeting that “in the last hour, the mayor has wrecked it all.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot at a news conference on Friday night, Jan. 29, 2021, discussing talks with the Chicago Teachers Union over a return to in-person learning.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot at a Friday night news conference, expressed dismay at the state of negotiations with the Chicago Teachers Union over a return to in-person learning.
Screenshot

Mayor Lori Lightfoot demanded thousands of teachers return to their schools Monday, issuing an ultimatum to the Chicago Teachers Union and setting the stage for the city’s second teachers strike in 15 months.

Negotiations continued into Friday evening between Chicago Public Schools officials and the union, but the two sides came away with no agreement and heightened tension heading into a pivotal weekend.

“Another day has passed, and the CTU has not agreed to anything,” Lightfoot said at a news conference late Friday, appearing her angriest at the union since the 2019 strike. “The CTU leadership has failed and left us with a big bag of nothing.”

Lightfoot said CPS plans to proceed with the reopening of elementary and middle schools on Monday, drawing a line in the sand that could set up a potential teacher lockout or strike next week if a deal isn’t made this weekend. The CTU has said its members won’t return to schools without an agreement.

“Those teachers need to be there to greet their students and teach them in-person,” Lightfoot said. “If the CTU continues not to show up and fails to work toward an agreement in good faith, then we will have no choice but to take further action. Now, let me be clear, none of us want to go there. And we shouldn’t have to.”

After the news conference, the CTU accused the mayor of ruining progress that had been made at the bargaining table, writing in a late-night tweet that “in the last hour, the mayor has wrecked it all.”

“We were well on our way, working toward an agreement around all key components with the people who are actually at the bargaining table (much like what’s happening in other cities),” the union wrote. “The educators in the room were working toward an agreement. The politician is blowing it all to pieces.”

The tone of the mayor’s comments surprised members of the union leadership and even some CPS insiders who expected her to announce progress at the bargaining table and an expectation for continued talks over the weekend.

The day had featured minimal updates until Lightfoot’s office, after negotiations ended for the day, scheduled an early evening news conference with schools chief Janice Jackson. One minute before the briefing was set to start, the mayor’s office alerted reporters that “this press conference has been postponed as the parties continue to negotiate.”

Leading up to that postponement, the union and City Hall, communicating through back channels, had agreed to return to the bargaining table in the evening, sources said.

The saga is the latest twist in the city’s various attempts to resume in-person learning for the first time during the pandemic. City officials still aim to bring 65,000 students and about 15,000 teachers into classrooms on Monday.

“The medical community has reached consensus on the safety of reopening schools,” Jackson said late Friday, speaking after the mayor.

“As a school district, we have gone above and beyond . . . to safely operate and reopen schools,” investing $70 million in school improvements, Jackson said.

Jackson also said that “thousands” of teachers had been coming into schools this past week to set up classrooms, despite the union’s directive not to report in person.

Earlier in the week, Jackson had sounded a conciliatory tone.

“We’re prepared to compromise and give up on things that we were dug in on,” Jackson had said Thursday on WBEZ’s Reset. “But the one thing we all have to agree on is that students belong in school, and that every parent should have an option.”

Before the Friday night news conference, the two sides had traded counterproposals all week and agreed on more issues than they disagreed on at the bargaining table.

CTU President Jesse Sharkey said in the morning that negotiations were in a “sensitive place” and would continue through the weekend.

“We are obviously going to keep talking. We want an agreement,” he said. “If the mayor is talking about the CTU being the source of stopping things up by raising unreasonable demands, that’s not true. We want to raise demands about things that matter at our schools and the safety of our members and the children, and allow us to get schools open in a safe way.”

CTU and CPS agree on PPE and ventilation protocols, and the formation of health and safety committees at each school to monitor and report problems.

The latest indications from CPS and CTU was that progress had been made on establishing a health metric that would determine school closures, but an agreement hadn’t yet been reached. The same went for testing of staff and students. CPS had proposed testing school staff twice per month and students in the 10 ZIP codes with the highest infection rates once a month. CTU additionally asked for every staff member and student to be tested once they return to get a sense of how widespread infections are in the school communities.

The largest remaining disagreements were over whether teachers who have medically vulnerable relatives at home should receive accommodations for remote work — and which conditions would qualify. The other sticking point is whether members should be required to return to classrooms before they receive a vaccination.