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CPS agrees to extensive testing plan, more vaccines for staff as day ends with no deal

In-person learning was canceled again Thursday as talks continued into the night between CPS and CTU over a school reopening plan.

CPS schools have remained closed to in-person learning.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Every teacher and staff member at 134 schools in the neighborhoods hardest-hit by COVID-19 will be tested for the virus weekly, according to a tentative agreement between Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union, as the two sides also appeared closer to a deal on a vaccination plan.

The resolution of one of the larger disagreements between the district and the union represents progress at the bargaining table, but Wednesday ended without a full agreement on how or when to reopen schools after an original “48-hour cooling-off period” expired at the end of the day.

“We are disappointed to report that at this time, no deal has been reached between CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union leadership,” the district said in a statement. “We will extend the cooling off period for the final time through the end of the day on Thursday to allow for further negotiations tonight.”

Hoping a deal could be reached, Mayor Lori Lightfoot promised earlier this week not to lock out teachers who refused to return to schools from remote work through Wednesday, and delayed the planned return of up to 65,000 preschool through eighth grade students to Thursday.

Backtracking Wednesday, the district said students and staff will continue remotely Thursday. There were no classes scheduled Friday, a school improvement day. The district’s academic quarter ends this week, and teachers are required to submit grades by Friday.

COVID tests for students, too

Under the newly formed testing plan, every staff member and students aged 10 and older will be offered a coronavirus test before returning to classrooms, according to a document circulated by the union.

The district has also agreed to regularly test some students at the schools in neighborhoods with the most infections, the document said, though it wasn’t clear how many children or how often. Half of in-person teachers and staff at the remaining schools will also be tested regularly.

CPS and CTU are closer to sorting out their differences on vaccinations, too. The district is offering 1,500 doses per week to all district workers, starting with those who have requested accommodations to work from home. The union is asking for at least 1,500 vaccines to go specifically to CTU members, and the number to proportionately increase as the city receives greater supply.

A CPS source pointed out that the union’s request for more doses for CTU members would either mean fewer vaccines go to members of other unions representing school employees such as cafeteria workers and security guards — who have been in-person since the start of the pandemic — or fewer doses to other essential workers, such as grocery store clerks.

The district also wants workers to return to schools after one dose of the vaccine, and the union has not agreed to that stance.

The thorniest issues left on the table are work-from-home accommodations for teachers and staff with medically vulnerable household members, and a public health metric that would determine when the district would open or close.

CPS has offered to accommodate 20% of outstanding requests from workers looking to stay home to protect a family member, the union document shows. The district has already granted 358 of those requests, and its proposal would mean about one-third of those workers would be allowed to work from home. The remaining rejected employees would be offered unpaid leave or required to return to in-person work after one dose of the vaccine, the union document shows. The CTU wants all of the work-from-home requests granted.

On a health metric, the district is offering to close schools when its surveillance testing of staff reaches a 3% positivity rate, the union said. CTU is asking for schools to only open when the community positivity rate falls under 5% or fewer than 20 new cases are identified per 100,000 residents every 14 days.

CPS and CTU have also discussed phasing in grades over the next two weeks, potentially starting with preschool and special education cluster programs, then kindergarten through fifth followed by sixth through eighth. The union’s bargaining update document didn’t mention those plans, but sources have said the two sides still disagree about how soon to bring in the first wave of elementary students.

The union’s 600-member governing body, the House of Delegates, convened for its regularly scheduled monthly meeting Wednesday. CTU leadership updated delegates on the latest bargaining news but didn’t take any further actions.

Clerks offered vaccines

Meanwhile, CPS offered vaccines to 880 school clerks and clerk assistants this week through a private partnership with Innovative Express Care, a health provider based in Lincoln Park. Two days were reserved for clerks to get their shots, registering through a unique code that can’t be used by other workers.

The teachers union welcomed the move to vaccinate clerks, who were the subject of a legal battle in the fall after CPS ignored an arbitrator’s ruling to allow clerks to work from home.

“After working in school buildings since August 2020, our school clerks are now eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccine,” the union wrote on Twitter. “This is not quite the robust vaccination plan that has been discussed, but we’re getting there.”

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.