Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Thursday she was out of patience with the Chicago Teachers Union — but her declaration that she wanted a deal to reopen schools “today” did not lead to an agreement as of late evening.
The CTU accused the district in a late night statement of rejecting its most pressing demands, and called for two news conferences the next morning with union leaders, teachers and state lawmakers who in a letter Thursday urged the mayor to reach a settlement.
While the union prepared for continued talks, little news came out of the mayor’s office after a 5:30 p.m. update said “we received a counter proposal from CTU leadership and are working on a response.” Details of the union’s offer were not shared.
At a morning news conference, the mayor said “the ball is in the CTU’s court.” She said she was “deeply disappointed to announce we still have not reached a deal. [Wednesday], there were a series of steps backwards that were simply not productive.”
Lightfoot said “we are out of runway” after more than 80 meetings between the two sides and CPS having “bent over backward” to accommodate CTU’s health and safety concerns. These were the mayor’s first critical comments about the union since her harsh news conference last Friday night, and they came after a “48 hour cooling-off period” that featured little public acrimony ended Wednesday.
The union said in its own statement that it was the city’s fault negotiations have dragged on to this point. The CTU said it had “begged for earnest conversations with CPS leadership for months,” but the district “said repeatedly that it did not have to negotiate a safe reopening” and didn’t take bargaining seriously until the union threatened to defy the district’s reopening plan.
“But these conversations are now taking place as [the] parties remain in constant communication and we are here, in the 11th hour, working towards a full agreement,” the union said.
“Our goal is, and has always been, a mutually agreed upon safe reopening plan for our schools. These decisions, however, cannot be made unilaterally in a vacuum. They require buy-in from all stakeholders in our school communities, and we will continue to lift democracy in soliciting feedback from educators and families in bargaining for the safe return that our students deserve.”
The union wrote in an open letter to parents ahead of the mayor’s news conference that its members “cannot return to in-person instruction until we have made more progress” in negotiations.
“We love your children. We desperately want to be back in classrooms with them, but we are not willing to accept the inevitable illness and death a reckless reopening will inflict on our city,” the union wrote.
The letter from 23 state lawmakers urged the mayor not to lock out teachers from providing remote learning and to speed up vaccines for staff.
“We request that educators continue to have access to their remote teaching and working platforms and that no teachers be locked out of remote work platforms prior to an agreement being reached,” the letter said. “It is our belief that there should be no in-person return to learning prior to the second semester’s start on February 8 and that a return to in-person learning be phased in.”
The letter continued: “We request that the CPS accelerate and expand a staff vaccination program to ensure that schools can reopen for in-person learning safely.”
There are no classes scheduled for Friday, a school improvement day. The district’s academic quarter ends this week, and teachers are required to submit grades by Friday. CPS hopes to bring at least some students into classrooms Monday, making an immediate deal all the more important to CPS. Up to 65,000 preschool through eighth grade students and children with moderate to complex disabilities are due to return when schools reopen, most of them twice a week. Another 200,000 kids will remain in remote learning full-time.
Jackson and Lightfoot have repeatedly quoted studies showing reopening schools is generally safe. Jackson tweeted Thursday that “at this point, finding a public health expert who opposes in-person learning is like finding a scientist who doesn’t believe in climate change.”
For her part, Lightfoot noted in the news conference that the citywide COVID-19 positivity rate has fallen to about 5%, the city’s lowest since infections spiked in October. She said schools operated safely when they were open for preschoolers and special education cluster programs for a couple weeks last month, until “CTU blew up that success and created the chaos we are now enduring.”
“Today is the day when we need a definitive answer on all of the outstanding issues,” she said.
Under a tentative agreement reached earlier this week and made public Wednesday, every teacher and staff member at 134 schools in the neighborhoods hardest-hit by COVID-19 will be tested for the virus weekly. And 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 represented progress at the bargaining table but not enough for a full settlement.
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 district has already granted 358 of those requests plus all requests from staff who themselves have medical vulnerabilities. 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.