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CTU on verge of strike as CPS calls off in-person classes Monday

Sunday should have been a pivotal day in negotiations, but the two sides did not even meet.

Educators teach outside DeWitt Clinton Elementary School in the West Rogers Park neighborhood to protest Chicago Public Schools’ reopening plan due to COVID-19 safety concerns, Thursday morning, Jan. 21, 2021.
Educators teach outside DeWitt Clinton Elementary School in the West Rogers Park neighborhood to protest Chicago Public Schools’ reopening plan due to COVID-19 safety concerns, Thursday morning, Jan. 21, 2021.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Officials with Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union have failed to reach an agreement over how and when to reopen schools, delaying in-person classes that had been scheduled to resume Monday and setting the stage for a strike that would halt learning altogether for 290,000 students this week.

Days after a deal had looked possible to avert the city’s second teachers strike in 15 months, the impasse began to spiral Sunday as the two sides publicly launched accusations and didn’t even negotiate on a day they knew would be pivotal to landing a deal.

The district put off the planned return of up to 67,000 preschool through eighth grade students who opted in for in-person learning — about one-third of those children who were eligible — until Tuesday. But there were no assurances another day would bring a greater possibility of classes resuming.

Elementary and middle school teachers will be required to report to schools Monday to teach their students virtually. If they don’t show up in-person, they’ll be locked out of remote work moving forward and no longer paid, officials said. The teachers union has already voted to strike if its members are locked out. CTU President Jesse Sharkey said the union’s House of Delegates would convene in the case of lockouts to determine a walkout date.

“I know we can get a deal done,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in an early evening news conference. “I’ve told my team, if it takes us staying up all night, let’s get it done.”

‘We can do this’

Schools chief Janice Jackson said she was “incredibly frustrated” not to have arrived at a deal that was “within reach.”

“We can do this,” she said. “Why should Chicago stand out when everybody else across the country has been able to safely do this? Why should CPS stand out when private and parochial schools in Chicago have been operating since the beginning of the school year?”

Jackson said she primarily worried about thousands of Black students who didn’t respond to district inquiries about whether they would like to return to classrooms, raising the question of whether they’re engaging at all remotely.

In a sign of the growing discord, CPS and CTU could not publicly agree why there were no negotiations Sunday. The district said its bargaining team stood ready to resume negotiations, waiting for a counterproposal from the union that never came. The union said it was told talks would continue only if “we were offering major concessions,” which it was unwilling to do.

The chaotic end to what both sides had hoped would be a successful weekend leaves thousands of families unsure of what’s next — including at the high school level. If CPS locks out elementary and middle school teachers and the union strikes, high school classes would also come to a halt, jeopardizing final exams scheduled this week. Lightfoot said she hopes “we never get to that point.”

CTU President Jesse Sharkey speaks at a news conference via Zoom Sunday night.
Zoom

Despite the deadlock, the mayor said she spoke with CTU President Jesse Sharkey by phone, calling their conversation “cordial and productive.”

“We agreed at the end of the call that we would keep the lines of communication open,” Lightfoot said. “There were no insults by either side.”

Union: We can reach an agreement

The disagreements are “something that can be solved,” Sharkey said in an evening conference call with reporters. “But right now we’re not seeing the compromises at the table that we would need.

“I don’t think our positions are unreasonable,” he said. “It takes two people to do that kind of compromise.”

A day earlier, several verbal agreements turned into written ones on health and safety protocols, ventilation, a contact tracing program and safety committees at each school that would monitor problems.

The sides are still negotiating over larger disagreements, such as a health metric to determine school closures, teacher vaccinations, a broader testing program for staff and students and work-from-home accommodations.

CPS said 5,000 CPS employees have already received approval to continue working from home because of underlying medical conditions. But the union is looking for another 2,000 requests to be approved for educators who are afraid of bringing the virus home to medically vulnerable household members.

Sharkey also said he understands vaccine supply is limited and teachers can’t jump in line ahead of essential workers who have been in-person the whole pandemic. But he was frustrated by what he called a lack of communication on the issue by district officials. The city is giving CPS 1,000 vaccines per week, leaving most educators searching for shots in what a union attorney described as a “bizarre ‘Hunger Games’ situation.”

The union has said its members shouldn’t be required to work in person before they’ve had a chance to be vaccinated, arguing educators should be moved to the front of the vaccine line if the city wants to reopen schools immediately.

Lightfoot and Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady have been reluctant to do that, saying essential workers who have been in person all this time should be prioritized over teachers.

Jackson has advocated for teachers to receive vaccine priority as soon as possible, but the current order exists for a reason, she said Sunday morning on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

“The vaccine is a part of a public health toolkit in order to mitigate the spread of COVID,” Jackson said. “Rule No. 1 is that you have to disseminate those vaccines in places where we’re trying to stop the spread of COVID. Schools are not significant sources of spread. And so this is a public health solution. We have to start with that. Some of these other things are incredibly important, but some of them are political decisions.”

In an earlier interview on CNN’s “Inside Politics,” Jackson said she isn’t willing to wait for teachers to be vaccinated before reopening schools.

“The vaccine will definitely take us further, which is why we’re working with our city’s Health Department in order to vaccinate our teachers as quickly as possible,” she said. “But I just think it’s important to note that it’s an important tool, but it’s not a necessary tool to reopen schools.”

Intimidation charges

Parents remained split on the district’s reopening plan Sunday, with one group alleging the public conversation over the issue had led to “intimidation.”

The newly organized Chicago Parents Collective held a lengthy virtual news conference to urge the two sides to come to an agreement that would give students the opportunity to choose between virtual and in-person learning.

Ryan Griffin, a CPS dad who helped organize the coalition of parents, conceded that classroom learning won’t immediately “be perfect” but felt confident in public health officials’ assessments that it’s safe to send kids back to school. He said he felt he was being forced to choose teachers’ safety over his child’s mental health.

“Everybody here in Chicago has had a year to figure this out, and our children have waited long enough. Yet here we are, ... [just hours] away from over 60,000 students arriving to class, and we don’t know if the teaching staff will be there,” said Griffin, who claimed the “escalation of the infighting is tarnishing our city’s reputation.”

Griffin said his group has faced “intimidation” by critics who have said the parents are showing their white privilege and don’t care about teachers’ health. Following the call with reporters, Griffin slammed the CTU’s Davis Gates for using Twitter to comment on a screenshot of the news conference that showed a predominantly white group of parents.

“These individuals have the ability to trust institutions [because] they’ve had experiences with institutions that have been positive/productive/etc.,” Davis Gates wrote to her more than 7,000 followers. “I wish that *everyone* could have those same experiences with our American institutions.”

Griffin followed with: “This is why parents are scared and intimidated to speak out.”

Another group of parents from the Humboldt Park neighborhood urged members of the Parents Collective to work with them to push for a safe reopening and ensure that children who can’t return to the classroom still receive a quality education. The two groups were at odds over how to open schools while fixing inequities.

Rosemary Vega, an organizer for the group from Humboldt Park, insisted the issue of reopening schools shouldn’t devolve into “a battle between parents against parents or parents against teachers.”

“We’re in a deadly pandemic, and every child deserves safe and stable conditions for a return to school,” said Vega, the parent of two CPS students and two recent graduates. “We all want our kids back in school, and we want it done safely.

“Shaming teachers who are trying to stay alive and protect their families is not the solution.”

Some CPS parents are using social media to promote a planned “sick-out” for Monday to protest the district’s reopening plan. The group is demanding that teachers, principals, other staffers and parents all “have a place at the table to collaborate and to put together a more effective reopening plan and a more robust remote learning plan,” they said in a statement.