CTU wants reopening of high schools delayed one week, citing COVID-19 variant concerns

CPS has targeted an April 19 return date for in-person learning, with teachers reporting this Monday.

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CTU President Jesse Sharkey and Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

CTU President Jesse Sharkey and Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Sharkey wants to delay the reopening of CPS high schools by one week.

Rich Hein; Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The Chicago Teachers Union wants Chicago Public Schools to delay the tentative April 19 re-opening of high schools for in-person learning by one week, citing concerns about a spike in coronavirus cases and older students’ ability to transmit COVID-19 like adults. City officials quickly rebuffed that request.

CTU President Jesse Sharkey, speaking on a Zoom call with union leaders and reporters Wednesday, said he is concerned about a COVID-19 variant spreading in states neighboring Illinois. It is unclear, he said, if the variant is behind the recent spike in Chicago cases.

“We need to answer those questions in order to understand if it’s safe to open schools right now for the high schools,” Sharkey said. “This is precisely the age of people in this city who, in states around the country, ... are driving the surge in other places.”

Sharkey and union members said they were concerned that CPS plans to have students at some high schools attending in-person classes four days a week, rather than splitting up the student body so that half attend, say, on Monday and Tuesday, with the other half coming in Thursday and Friday. The union wants assurances that scheduling allows for safe social distancing.

“The only way to keep things safe in high school is to have low enough student attendance numbers so that you can have social distancing; that’s a function of scheduling,” Sharkey said.

The CTU also suggested public health conditions are worsening close to the point that elementary schools, which have been open since early March, would soon have to shut down again, per the union’s reopening agreement with the district. Two of three conditions outlined in that deal have already been met for district-wide closures, with the third being a 10% average citywide test positivity rate over the course of a week. Chicago stood at 5.2% as of Tuesday.

If high schools reopen during what might be the start of a new wave of infections, they might lead to worse metrics and inadvertently cause the closure of elementary schools, “an outcome that no one wants,” Sharkey said.

A total of 20 elementary schools reported COVID-19 cases last week, with a combined 163 close contacts in quarantine, according to records posted on the district’s website. There have been 100 adults and 62 students who have tested positive since schools reopened at the start of March. That’s out of 15,000 staff members and about 50,000 students who have returned to schools.

Lightfoot: No need to renegotiate opening date

Speaking to reporters later Wednesday morning at a South Side news conference called to announce the expansion of Sunday library hours, Mayor Lori Lightfoot dismissed the union’s points and said she is sticking with the April 19 date to reopen CPS high schools. Teachers and staff should report to their schools this upcoming Monday unless they have an approved work-from-home accommodation, district officials said in an email Wednesday. That was the first time workers were officially informed of their report date — five days in advance.

Lightfoot argued there is “no basis” for renegotiating the framework agreement that reopened schools for K-8 students and set the stage to do the same at high schools.

“As part of that negotiation, in writing, we set forth a plan for when schools would open. But also, if the conditions warranted, when we would close — by classroom, by school and by district,” she said.

“That’s already baked into the plan. So we’re gonna follow the plan. There’s no basis for us to renegotiate that. The terms are ones that were agreed to by the CTU just a matter of a few weeks ago. I see no basis for delay. And it’s my expectation that we’re gonna be opening up high schools as indicated by CPS.”

Lightfoot said her hand-picked school team has been “extraordinarily transparent about any issues where we see workplace spread and that’s no different in the schools.”

The mayor said she talks to Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady “multiple times a day” and Arwady is “not aware of any issues that warranted triggering closure requirements.”

Lightfoot’s position was echoed in a statement from CPS spokesman James Gherardi.

“While our discussions with CTU have been productive, it is disheartening to see yet again that CTU is choosing to create uncertainty for families and their own members when they know and privately agree that our high schools are safe and prepared to open,” Gherardi said.

“Our own elementary schools have shown that safe in-person learning is possible right now, and our high school families deserve the same opportunity that President Biden and public health leaders have called for, which is the safe reopening of our high school doors.”

Arwady said in her own statement she sees “no reason to delay the reopening of high schools.” The recent increases in COVID case rates have been driven by young adults aged 18-39, she said, but there have not been “significant increases” among those under 18.

A mid-April reopening would resume in-person high school classes for the first time in over a year and would match plans several suburban districts have set out over the past few weeks.

Fewer than half of all CPS students and about 35 percent of high schoolers have chosen to return to their classrooms in the fourth quarter for what will be their last opportunity for in-person learning before the fall. Students in grades 9-12 make up 26,000 of the 121,000 children who told CPS they’re interested in returning later this month.

School chief Janice Jackson has said discussions with the teachers union about high school reopening have been productive. The two sides have met 12 times over the past month.

But Sharkey said Wednesday the union is not yet ready to endorse a reopening agreement, especially without a plan to immediately vaccinate eligible returning high schoolers — who have been found to contract and pass on the virus similar to adults, a problem elementary schools didn’t face — and their families.

“We want to keep our kids safe, we want to keep their families safe,” said Mueze Bawany, a teacher at Roberto Clemente Community Academy.

The response from the district, Bawany said, has been, “Well, we’ll let you figure it out. We’ll let your schools figure it out.”

Illinois residents over the age of 16 — other than in Chicago — will be eligible for the vaccine April 12, while the city intends to expand its eligibility April 19. CPS officials said at last month’s school board meeting they’re working on a plan to vaccinate older students but details haven’t been announced. About 38% of CPS workers, meanwhile, have reported receiving a first dose, though the actual number is likely much higher, both CPS and CTU have said.

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