CPS ‘firmly committed’ to reopening high schools next week despite CTU’s threat to stay remote

High school teachers and staff returned to in-person work Monday but could revert to remote teaching this week if a deal isn’t reached with CPS.

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Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey speaks to reporters outside the Thompson Center in March 2020.

Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times file

Chicago Public Schools officials say they are “firmly committed” to reopening high schools next week for the first time during the pandemic despite a plan by the Chicago Teachers Union to have high school teachers and staff work remotely Wednesday in an attempt to pressure the district into a reopening agreement.

The district has held “productive discussions with CTU leadership to ensure a smooth transition back for our students and staff,” and the two sides are working to reach an agreement “as soon as possible,” CPS CEO Janice Jackson and the district’s education chief, LaTanya McDade, wrote in a letter to high school families Monday.

“Over the weekend we made progress on a number of areas and have general alignment on topics including the scheduling models schools will use and safety protocols to keep students and staff safe in high school buildings,” they wrote.

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“We have also agreed that high school staff will be able to work [remotely] on Wednesdays, which is a remote day for all students, and we will work to support vaccinations for students when they are eligible and doses are available.”

The union’s House of Delegates, however, “told the leadership of the CTU in no uncertain terms that we’re not simply reopening schools without more progress at the bargaining table and without a return agreement in high schools,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said during a virtual news conference Monday.

CTU delegates voted Sunday evening for about 5,350 high school teachers and hundreds more staff to work remotely Wednesday if a reopening deal with CPS isn’t reached by then. CPS had directed 4,300 of those teachers to return this week, and they’ll be in schools Monday and Tuesday. About 26,000 high school students are expected back next week. As of now, the collective action wouldn’t affect elementary schools, which have been open for over a month.

“We’re asking for some basic safeguards and some reassurances that we’re not pouring gasoline onto a fire, that we’re not making an unsafe situation worse,” Sharkey said.

“We expect to see progress at the table. ... If we do not see that, the members of the CTU are not going back into buildings under those conditions.”

Asked if the potential walkout would extend past Wednesday, Sharkey said the union would hold another meeting this week to discuss the latest bargaining updates and figure out what to do moving forward.

A CTU document sent to members over the weekend shows progress has been made on several key issues.

In response to the union’s demand for a student vaccine program, the district plans to create a student and family vaccination plan by the end of the school year, according to the CTU document. All staff have been eligible for vaccines since late January.

CPS also agreed to provide more technology for simultaneous instruction, add two hours of teacher preparation time each week, implement new safety protocols for lunchrooms and designate staggered start and end times and one-way hallways and stairs when needed, the document shows.

Under CPS’ current plan, of the district’s 96 high schools, 36 (most of which have fewer than 100 students returning) would have students in school four days each week, while the rest would put each in-person student in classrooms two days a week, the CTU update said. The union is demanding some of the largest high schools where hundreds of students opted to return split into one-day-a-week cohorts to maximize social distancing.

The union document showed CPS asked to change the number of positive COVID-19 cases required to shut down an individual school from three to six, which CTU has so far rejected.

In an afternoon update livestreamed on Facebook, CTU chief of staff Jennifer Johnson said there hadn’t yet been “adequate progress” in negotiations.

“We should be talking to each other about what Wednesday will look like in the high schools if we still need to walk out,” Johnson said. “We have to be prepared to refuse on Wednesday.

“If we see great progress tomorrow, wonderful.”

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