Chicago Public Schools teachers will not be locked out of remote learning this week “as a gesture of good faith” while negotiations with the Chicago Teachers Union continue, officials said Monday, backing off a threat that likely would have triggered a strike.
The school system called off in-person classes Tuesday and Wednesday and will continue remote learning to allow more time for an agreement with the union on how and when to reopen all elementary schools for the first time during the pandemic.
“We have secured agreement on one other open issue and made substantial progress on a framework that we hope will address the remaining issues,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot and schools chief Janice Jackson said in a statement.
“We are calling for a 48-hour cooling off period that will hopefully lead to a final resolution on all open issues. As a result of the progress we have made, and as a gesture of good faith, for now, teachers will retain access to their Google Suite.”
Union: We are one step closer
CTU President Jesse Sharkey said was it “heartening” that the mayor decided not to escalate a situation that had begun spiraling over the weekend.
“We are not locked out today or tomorrow because of our members’ unity, their commitment to their school communities, and their fearless solidarity,” he said in a statement. “We don’t want a strike. We want to keep working remotely as we bargain an agreement to return to our classrooms safely. And we’re one step closer to that goal today, because management has agreed to stay at the table rather than escalating conflict or locking out educators.”
Monday was not the first time the mayor and schools officials backed off threats to lock out teachers. About 10,000 K-8 educators were originally ordered to report to their schools Jan. 25. When the union threatened a collective no-show a few days in advance, the district called the forthcoming action an “illegal strike” and said it would cut off access to remote work and withhold pay for any teachers who stayed home, as it did with about 100 educators earlier in the month. Those threats have not come to pass, as CPS has eventually pushed back teachers’ return date multiple times.
Neither the mayor nor the union said which additional issue was sorted out Monday. The sides were still negotiating over a health metric to determine school closures, teacher vaccinations, a broader testing program for staff and students and work-from-home accommodations. CPS and CTU have also discussed phasing in grades over a couple weeks, potentially bringing back kindergarten through fifth first.
CPS has 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 those who are afraid of bringing the virus home to medically vulnerable household members — among the 21,000 additional educators required to go back. That remains one of the thorniest issues on the table.
Agreements have been reached on health and safety protocols, ventilation, a contact tracing program and safety committees at each school that would monitor problems.
Despite the progress, the day marked the failure by Lightfoot and CPS officials to achieve a goal they set in November for elementary and middle schools to reopen Monday. 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 — are still expected to return to classrooms whenever an agreement is reached.
On Sunday, the stage appeared set for a strike after CPS and CTU failed to reach an agreement ahead of Monday’s scheduled return. While the possibility of a work stoppage still looms — a move that would halt learning altogether for 290,000 students, including those in high schools — there appears a willingness and urgency from both sides to resolve the impasse before that point.
The union has asked its House of Delegates to remain on call all week for a meeting to either finalize strike plans if CPS again changes course and decides to lock out teachers, or to discuss a potential tentative agreement.
CPS and CTU largely laid off the attacks and insults Monday that had highlighted negotiations over the weekend. The union’s highly critical social media presence was more muted and Lightfoot in particular struck a more conciliatory tone than she had in recent days — though she got in one jab earlier in the day that roused teachers.
Making a live appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” to promote CPS’ reopening plan, the mayor compared the CTU to the police union.
“We have over 40-plus unions in the city of Chicago that serve our workforce. We have labor peace with every single one except two: The right wing leadership of the Fraternal Order of Police” and the teachers union, Lightfoot said.
“We’ve had three weeks of safely implementing our plan until the teachers union blew it up,” she continued, referencing the initial return of 3,200 preschool and special education students in mid-January. “A strike would be catastrophic — mostly for our kids. But, we’re pushing as hard as we can to seal these last few remaining, but tough issues.”
Lightfoot argued schools are safe for in-person classes because the district has spent $100 million on PPE, disinfectants, ventilation improvements, portable air purifiers and other safety measures.
Biden hopes two sides can find common ground
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, asked at a briefing Monday whether President Joe Biden agreed with Lightfoot’s assessment that Chicago schools are ready to reopen, toed the line in the dispute.
“Let me first say the president has enormous respect for Mayor Lightfoot and he has also been a strong ally to teachers through his entire career,” Psaki said. “He trusts the mayor and the unions to work this out.
“They’re both prioritizing the right things which is ensuring the health and safety of the kids and teachers and working to make sure that children in Chicago are getting the education they deserve. ... So, he is hopeful, we are hopeful, they can reach common ground as soon as possible.”
Contributing: Lynn Sweet, Fran Spielman