CPS plans to lock out some teachers who don’t show Monday, putting CTU on verge of strike once again
The move came after the union deemed the city’s final offer “deficient.”
Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools officials say they will lock out preschool teachers and staff who work with disabled children from remote work if they don’t return to schools Monday, reigniting the potential for the city’s second teachers strike in 15 months.
If the mayor and school district follow through with a threat they’ve made then backed off from several times the past two weeks, a Chicago Teachers Union walkout would likely be triggered, plunging the school system into deeper turmoil during a pandemic that has upended education for the past year.
“Despite making significant compromises in an effort to reach a deal with CTU leadership, we still do not have an agreement,” the mayor and schools chief Janice Jackson wrote in an email to staff early Friday evening. “We have the power to make sure this virus does not further disrupt the growth and progress of all our students. We hope a resolution is near, and we thank you for your patience and support.”
The email was sent as a virtual meeting of thousands of CTU members took place, during which union president Jesse Sharkey said no one should report to schools Monday unless there is a full agreement between the union and CPS.
“And I’m not too sure that’s going to happen, although we’re going to keep bargaining,” he said.
Although dozens of pre-K and special ed teachers were locked out from remote work after they failed to show up Jan. 4, the situation is different now since union members voted in mid-January to authorize a strike if CPS locked out the thousands of elementary teachers that were due back Jan. 25. Lightfoot previously decided against mass lockouts in hopes of reaching a deal.
“Our strategy here, it very much remains the same,” Sharkey told members. “We’re going to work remotely, we’re not showing up at our schools. Which means if the mayor is going to try to force us into in-person, the first thing she’s going to have to do is to lock us out of our remote classrooms. And that’s very politically unpopular because 80% of our students are still learning remotely.”
About 21,700 preschool through eighth grade staff members are due to return to schools when they reopen, including more than 12,000 teachers. Up to 67,000 students could return to classrooms — most for two days a week, while preschoolers and some in special education go back full-time.
But a strike would halt all district classes for about 290,000 students — including the 123,000 students whose families have chosen to keep their kids home and for high school students, who are not currently scheduled to return in-person.
‘Last, best and final offer’
Lightfoot’s lockout threat came hours after she and CPS said they made their “last, best and final offer” to the teachers union in school reopening negotiations.
The city’s proposal would bump the number of outstanding work-from-home accommodations granted to educators with medically vulnerable household members from 20% to 25% of the total, according to a union document obtained by the Sun-Times. About 350 of those requests have already been granted with up to 2,000 pending. The district’s offer would allow those who are denied accommodations to start getting vaccinated Monday. Those that get a shot in the next two weeks will be allowed to work remotely for an additional 14 days. Those that turn down the vaccine can take unpaid leave with full benefits.
“This new arrangement is in addition to the 5,000 accommodations CPS has already granted for staff who are either medically vulnerable or a primary caretaker of a vulnerable family member,” CPS said in a statement Friday afternoon.
On a health metric that would determine school closures, the district offered to revert to full remote learning if half of schools are shut down with COVID-19 outbreaks. The district would also consider widespread closures when its surveillance testing of staff reaches a 2.5% positivity rate, down from its previous offer of 3%. The union has asked 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 is offering 1,500 first doses of a COVID-19 vaccine to all district employees per week — including for staff not represented by CTU. The district said Friday that staff that work in 15 of the most impacted communities would also be able to get vaccinated through a separate initiative.
The CTU has asked for 1,500 weekly shots specifically for its members and for the district’s share of doses to increase with the city’s supply. Sharkey said the district’s plan wouldn’t vaccinate teachers quickly enough.
“Under that schedule, educators forced back into buildings could still be waiting until June for vaccinations through CPS, months after the mayor proposes to fully reopen school buildings,” he said.
Even so, Sharkey asked members to talk to their colleagues and figure out how strongly they’re willing to push for the remaining issues.
“We’re getting into a point of this fight where really we need to start considering what we’ve won, where it’s worth continuing to fight for, people’s stomach for that fight,” he said. “I do expect there to be chances to maybe make some more progress, some more gains. But it’s really a sign on their part that they’re getting to the point where they’re saying, ‘We’re not getting much more after this, guys.’
“We are at the table, we are really trying to focus in on what we need. This is not the time for us to have lots and lots of proposals that are our wish list. This is the time for us to think about what we need to keep our people safe as possible.”
Return schedule laid out
As far as timing, the district wants pre-kindergarten and special education cluster program staff to return to schools Monday, with students returning Tuesday. Regardless of whether they’ve been vaccinated, K-5 staff would report in-person Feb. 16, with their students back Feb. 22; and 6-8 staff would return Feb. 22, with their students in classrooms March 1.
The union has asked to phase-in a return to classrooms by grade levels that would see preschool through eighth grade educators vaccinated and in classrooms by March 8.
The CPS offer is “deficient” and “cannot stand,” said an email sent to union members early Friday afternoon. CTU leadership didn’t “consider it a serious proposal,” sources close to negotiations said.
“To say we’re deeply disappointed that the mayor has chosen to end negotiations and instead move to lock out educators and shut down schools rather than work out our differences is an understatement,” Sharkey wrote in his email. “We remain ready to bargain again today, and every day, until we land an agreement that allows us to reopen classrooms safely, with real equity for our students and school communities.”
Lightfoot, though, said the ball was in the union’s court to make a counteroffer.
In a series of tweets, Lightfoot said the city is “committed to making sure everyone in the CPS community gets vaccinated as soon as possible,” but she blamed the administration of former President Donald Trump for a “gross mishandling of the pandemic” that led to the city’s “desperate lack of vaccine supply.”
“The truth is that a diversion of vaccine supply to one group of Chicagoans will severely disrupt supply to our most vulnerable Chicagoans — seniors and other frontline essential workers,” the mayor wrote.
She also noted the city has invested $100 million into preparing schools for a safe reopening.
“It’s time to come to a comprehensive agreement so that the whole of CPS can move forward,” she said. “Being mayor is about making tough calls, and this is no exception. But this is the right call to ensure our children can live up to their God-given potential while keeping everyone — students, teachers, and staff — safe.”
Whether the mayor will follow through with her lockout threat remains to be seen. She already pushed back the in-person return for K-8 teachers by two weeks. Elementary students were initially supposed to return this past Monday but the district called off classes all week because the union voted not to report to schools.
The union noted the mayor’s earlier decisions to back down in urging its members to stay united.
“Three times in the past week, the mayor has drawn a line in the sand, and three times, our solidarity and our commitment has forced her and CPS leadership to step over that line,” Sharkey said. “We remain remote until we land an agreement, because what we’re fighting for is right and necessary.”
Politicians line up behind CTU
Also Friday, the CTU hosted a dozen city, county and state elected officials — all strong political allies of the union, including CPS graduates and parents — at a news conference Friday expressing their disappointment with the mayor’s stance.
“Parents in my community want negotiations, not ultimatums,” said State Rep. Greg Harris, the House majority leader. State Sen. Robert Martwick urged the city to return to the table and continue negotiations.
“The reality is that a hasty re-entry could have devastating impacts on our schools and the larger community,” said State Rep. Lindsey LaPointe. “It’s wrong and it’s cruel to ask our public school teachers to choose between keeping their jobs and keeping their loved ones safe from a virus that has killed almost 20,000 people in our state.
“It’s difficult to understand how we have reached this impasse here today. This is an unnecessary showdown. We all agree that the teachers and students deserve safe classrooms. We know that teachers want to continue to work. We know that teachers have been working.”
‘Minimally, you provide safety’
Also Friday, a number of Black educators and CTU leaders spoke during a virtual panel about challenges facing Black and Brown communities in the pandemic and an equitable path to school reopening.
“We are actually on the front line fighting for the dignity and respect of Black life,” teacher Tara Stamps said. “It is the absolute wrong message that we do not want to go back to school. What we are saying is ‘If you want people in the buildings, if you want children to return in the dead of winter in the city of Chicago … then minimally you provide safety, minimally you provide equity and minimally you come to the table with trust.’”
Dawn Kelly, a teacher at Bond Elementary in Englewood, said educators like herself are under immense pressure fighting for greater access to vaccines in Black and Brown communities.
She said returning to classrooms in these communities — some of the hardest-hit by the pandemic — will not be safe until there is a comprehensives vaccination plan in place and accommodations for staff and teachers with medically vulnerable household members.
“We know this virus is decimating our community,” Kelly said. “We know there are two different Americas. We know there are two Chicagos. When white America has a cold, black America typically has pneumonia. So I’m asking everyone … to take a step back … because one life lost is too many.”