CTU says talks over additional COVID-19 precautions aren’t progressing with return to classrooms just days away

CTU President Jesse Sharkey assured families that teachers would go to schools next week for the planned return to full-time in-person learning even without an agreement in hand, leaving the prospects of another walkout unlikely — at least to start the school year.

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CTU President Jesse Sharkey at a news conference Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021 in Pilsen, where he called for additional COVID-19 safety measures before students return to class.

CTU President Jesse Sharkey at a news conference Wednesday in Pilsen, where he called for additional COVID-19 safety measures before students return to class.

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As students prepare to return to classrooms later this month, Chicago Teachers Union leaders said Wednesday they’re frustrated by negotiations with city officials over additional safety precautions to protect students and staff from the highly contagious Delta variant of COVID-19.

News that an agreement was again looking elusive brought familiar anxiety to Chicago Public Schools parents who have seen the district and union drag out health and safety negotiations twice before during the pandemic.

But CTU president Jesse Sharkey said teachers would go to schools next week for the planned return to full-time in-person learning even without an agreement — leaving the prospect of another walkout unlikely, at least to start the school year.

Sharkey initially declared the two sides were at “impasse” — a legal term that could start the clock on a potential strike. But a spokeswoman later clarified that CTU and CPS were not in fact at impasse, and that union leaders were simply unhappy with a lack of progress. The district and union continued to negotiate Wednesday.

One key provision union leaders want in place is a metric by which schools would close if COVID cases surpass a certain level, Sharkey said at a news conference Wednesday morning outside Benito Juarez Community Academy in Pilsen. CPS officials haven’t agreed to maintain the previous school year’s threshold, he said.

Sharkey also called into question CPS’ plan to reduce required social distancing guidelines from 6 feet to 3 feet — aligning with federal and state recommendations — to make room for additional returning students.

“Last year we had 6 feet, which was extremely important during meal time, for example, when kids take off their masks,” he said.

“If we go back in and there’s a dangerous surge, we count on the mayor and the district to do the right thing — and if they don’t, we’ll take matters into our own hands,” Sharkey said.

CPS spokesman James Gherardi said protocols are in alignment, and in some cases surpass, state and federal guidelines. The district instituted a mask mandate regardless of vaccination status a little before federal and state officials did the same.

“It is disappointing that the CTU is rejecting science for their own gain and continues to second guess health experts and express their own unscientific opinions about health related matters,” Gherardi said in an email.

“The CTU appears to be committed to spreading doubt instead of preparing for the upcoming school year after the past year’s immense disruption to learning. CPS looks forward to opening five days a week, in-person beginning Monday, August 30,” he said.

Wednesday marked the return to school for clerks. Next week, teachers and other staff will return for professional development. The week after that, students will be back in class before Labor Day for the first time in almost a decade.

“We’re going to continue fighting and making a stink about trying to get the agreements that would help make the return to in-person school as safe as possible,” Sharkey said.

There were hundreds of confirmed coronavirus cases among students and staff throughout the district last school year, with a peak of 57 kids testing positive in a single May week. The cases still represented a tiny fraction of those who returned in-person. The largest disruption was, in some cases, dozens of students quarantining because they were close contacts to someone who tested positive.

The big change since last school year is the emergence of the Delta variant, which has in part led to increased illness among children. Many parents are particularly worried heading into the new school year because the vast majority of school-aged kids — those 11 and under — remain ineligible for a vaccine.

CPS has said only unvaccinated kids will need to quarantine if they’re identified as a close contact of a confirmed COVID-19 case. That leaves open the possibility of some split classrooms, with some kids learning remotely while others remain in person.

To avoid that so-called “simultaneous instruction,” which teachers have complained about for the past year, Sharkey called for hiring additional teacher assistants or substitute teachers. It is “extremely difficult,” Sharkey said, to teach kids in class and at home at the same time.

Sharkey also called for additional efforts to vaccinate students, noting that outcomes could be especially dire in parts of the city where vaccinations remain low.

“If this winds up being a runaway surge, where people are getting sick, being hospitalized and dying, we’re going to take action,” Sharkey said. “I think parents are going to support that and we’re not going to simply sit there and participate in mass spreader events inside of our schools. We would take action before that happens, so we’ll see.”

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