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Top Illinois schools official says districts should consider extending school year; CTU says it’s open to the idea

A CPS spokeswoman said the union’s proposal to pause the school reopening plan until teachers are vaccinated and extend the year “is not well thought-out, let alone a serious attempt at reaching agreement.”

Desks are spread apart to ensure social distancing and reducing spread of COVID-19 at South Shore Fine Arts Academy at 1415 E 70th St in South Shore, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021.
Desks are spaced apart to achieve social distancing and reduced spread of COVID-19 at South Shore Fine Arts Academy, 1415 E 70th St. in South Shore on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Illinois’ top education official is recommending school districts consider extending classes into the summer, a proposition that Chicago Teachers Union leaders for the first time have suggested could be amenable if it would put off mandatory in-person teaching until educators are vaccinated for the coronavirus.

Though an extended school year would come with potentially massive costs, including additional compensation for teachers and staff, State Superintendent of Education Carmen Ayala wrote in a letter to administrators this week that $2.25 billion in coronavirus relief that Illinois is getting from the feds should help make it possible. Chicago Public Schools is set to receive $720 million.

Ayala said the funds should primarily be used to “close the digital divide for good” and mitigate learning loss by offering more educational opportunities.

“Begin planning now to reimagine the school calendar and expand the school day to ensure students receive every opportunity to grow,” Ayala told district leaders.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker said this week that school employees will be in the next group of vaccinations that will start “in a few weeks.” Ayala added that teacher vaccinations will help move the state toward a full return to schools, but she didn’t tie inoculations to the resumption of part-time in-person classes.

The CTU proposed for the first time this week holding off on in-person learning until all employees have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, then extending the school year to a mutually agreed-upon date. In the meantime, CPS could group teachers, staff and students who opt to return, union president Jesse Sharkey said.

An extension would mark an apparent compromise from the CTU, which under normal conditions in the past has argued against a longer school year and day. It’s unclear whether teachers, many of whom typically enjoy their summer break after a long school year, would be on board. Some have commented in Facebook groups and on the union’s livestreamed updates that they are strongly against the idea because they’ve been working the entire school year, even if remotely.

CPS spokeswoman Emily Bolton said in a statement Thursday that the district has worked with the CTU for months and made progress on key issues but that the latest proposal “is not well thought-out, let alone a serious attempt at reaching agreement.” She added that it was a “thinly veiled attempt to halt in-person learning without any scientific evidence whatsoever to support their false claims,” and that the union is moving the goalposts in its demands for a safe reopening.

“As a public institution, we have an obligation to deliver on that promise for the families who have selected in-person learning,” Bolton said.

Jackson said she has “advocated strongly that educators be included and prioritized” for vaccinations. But “I don’t think that they are a requirement,” she said, because some doctors and infectious disease experts have said schools are safe to reopen regardless of broader community spread as long as strong mitigation protocols are in place.

Other studies have shown reopening schools, even with mitigation, can be dangerous in communities with high levels of infection.

Bolton said CPS doesn’t expect all teachers to be vaccinated “until months from now.”