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CTU president Sharkey ‘confident’ high school reopening deal can be reached, but warns schools won’t look the same

Schools chief Janice Jackson said this week she “definitely won’t be satisfied” if high schools don’t reopen this spring.

Jesse Sharkey, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, expressed confidence a deal could be struck to resume in-person high school classes.
Jesse Sharkey, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, expressed confidence a deal could be struck to resume in-person high school classes.
Kamil Krzaczynski/Getty Images

Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey said Wednesday that he’s confident an agreement can be reached with Chicago Public Schools officials to reopen the city’s high schools.

The union leader warned of more complexities with older grades that could take time to sort out, and he stressed high schools won’t look nearly the same as pre-pandemic times. But he sees a path to a deal in bargaining that started Wednesday.

“I am confident that we can be delivering in-person education for folks in high school,” Sharkey said in an interview. “I do not know exactly what that will look like. I know that we have to keep safety in mind.

“I’m pretty sure it doesn’t look like what high school looked like before the pandemic,” he said. “There’s a bunch of things about high school that make it more challenging than elementary schools. Which is a reason why across the country so few high schools have actually reopened. Even places that ran school all fall, like New York, haven’t reopened high schools.”

For one, high schools typically have hundreds more students than elementary schools and higher classroom-to-classroom mobility with different subjects in separate classrooms — both factors making it harder to develop hybrid schedules and the 15-student pods used in the K-8 plan. Older students also are used to a greater level of independence.

“You’re three-quarters of the way through a school year, and so it’s very hard to then reprogram a school,” he said. “You’ve already gotten three-quarters of a class under your belt, you’ve got to keep your same schedule.”

Asked if there’s enough time to sort out all those issues with only three months left in the school year, Sharkey said, “I don’t know. That’s a good question.”

“I think we’ve got time to make a pretty good stab at some of it, a bunch of it,” he said.

“Am I confident we can do something? Yes. Am I confident that it’s going to be perfect, or that it’s going to look exactly like school did before the pandemic? No, in fact I’m pretty sure that it won’t.”

Schools chief Janice Jackson said at a news conference on the first day of K-5 reopening Monday she “definitely won’t be satisfied” if high schools don’t reopen this spring. She said both CPS and CTU “learned a lot” in their hostile negotiations the past few months, and the conversation has moved past whether schools should reopen.

“Now it really is about what does it take in order to have in-person instruction in high schools, which is more complicated than an elementary school,” Jackson said. “Our goal is to see our kids back this year, and that’s how we’re going to start the conversation with CTU this week.”

Responding to criticism that parent and student voices weren’t heard in the last round of negotiations, Jackson vowed more engagement in high school talks. She said principals and teachers will be at the table, and CPS will send a survey to parents and students to hear their suggestions and concerns.

Sharkey said he’s been saddened to see high school students miss out on activities and rights of passage like prom, graduation and sports, but he’s not sure if big in-person events will be possible this spring. As far as schooling goes, “we need to ... make plans that are going to do right by some of those students,” he said.

“I think we’d like to figure out a way to provide services to people in high school, especially to the students who are being most poorly served by the way we’re doing it now,” Sharkey said.