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CPS teachers frustrated by deal to reopen classrooms, but union leaders urge passage

Teachers are voting through Wednesday afternoon on an agreement that would stiffen COVID safety measures at schools. But many said the agreement did not go far enough.

Staff members enter John T. McCutcheon Elementary School in the Uptown neighborhood, Tuesday morning, Jan. 11, 2022, after the Chicago Teachers Union’s house of delegates voted Monday night to suspend a walkout over safety concerns amid the COVID-19 Omicron surge and instead report to work in person Tuesday.
Staff members enter John T. McCutcheon Elementary School Tuesday morning in the Uptown neighborhood.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Chicago Public Schools students are headed back to classrooms Wednesday after a week away while the district and the Chicago Teachers Union negotiated stronger COVID-19 protections. But with educators holding mixed feelings about the deal, there aren’t any guarantees kids stay there.

Teachers returned to their classrooms Tuesday after the union’s House of Delegates voted 389-226 Monday night to suspend their work action that had refused in-person work because of concerns with the raging Omicron variant and a poorly run COVID-19 testing program.

“I’m just glad to be back,” said one teacher outside Blaine Elementary School on the North Side Tuesday morning.

Electronic ballots went out to the union’s 25,000 members to vote through 4 p.m. Wednesday on whether to approve a safety agreement with CPS and officially end the CTU’s third major labor dispute with Mayor Lori Lightfoot in 27 months.

A simple majority decides the outcome. If the deal fails, the House of Delegates would vote Wednesday evening to resume the labor action, presumably starting Thursday, and union leaders would have to ask the mayor to resume bargaining.

Many teachers are frustrated they had to lose four days of pay in exchange for very few of their demands being met. CTU President Jesse Sharkey fielded questions from skeptical members at a union virtual meeting Tuesday evening where he acknowledged the potential agreement “certainly isn’t everything we wanted” but “there’s more than nothing in it.”

“I hear a lot of anger and I hear a lot of frustration about the the terms,” he said. “I’m not trying to sugarcoat it, and I can look reality in the face.”

Lightfoot wouldn’t budge

But as negotiations dragged toward Jan. 18, when the union said it would return, “we saw our bargaining leverage decreasing” because city officials had “less and less incentive to actually bargain with us,” he said. And there wasn’t an obvious strategy for the union to achieve more of its safety demands when the mayor didn’t look likely to budge, he said.

Stacy Davis Gates, the union’s vice president, told members she was voting in favor of the deal because it cemented some new safeguards but said “none of this is perfect.”

“It is unfair that teachers have had the responsibility of keeping this city up, safe, children educated,” she said. “Teacher hating didn’t start with COVID, but it sure increased.”

The deal featured many concessions by CTU. The district didn’t offer to reinstate a threshold for system-wide school closures and didn’t agree to an opt-out testing program, two of the union’s most prominent demands. The district also didn’t agree to offer remote learning this week as teachers had hoped.

But officials did offer to increase testing at all schools to at least 10% of their student population. Students registered for testing would be randomly selected each week. All staff would be offered testing this week.

Though the district stuck with an opt-in testing program, it committed to working with the CTU to increase student testing and vaccination to 100% by next month. CPS would establish phone banks where staff would help call parents and solicit verbal consent for testing. About 20% of students were signed up at the start of the week, but teachers around the city said they were already seeing lots more parents register over the phone.

When it came to individual school closures, CPS compromised with the CTU and agreed to shut down a building for at least five days if 30% or more of its teachers are absent for two consecutive days because of positive cases or quarantines, and if substitutes can’t get the absences under 25%. A school would also close if 40% of its students were quarantining.

CPS didn’t guarantee the missed days would be made up at the end of the year, leaving CTU members without assurances they would be paid.

Many conflicted

Elizabeth Morales, the CTU delegate at Spry Elementary, said she voted in the House of Delegates to suspend the work action because she wanted all members to have the opportunity to vote on the agreement. But she’s now undecided on whether to accept the district’s proposal.

“I’m a little bit conflicted because I don’t think it should have been this hard to get some of the things we wanted,” Morales said. “But I think that those things that we have in place now do provide security and some safety moving forward for the rest of the school year. I just hope that the public understands we were not asking for much and it became such a struggle and it should not be this way.”

About 130 of Spry’s 315 students, over 40%, were absent the first day back from winter break last week, according to the CTU, with more than 30% of students testing positive for the virus. If those conditions continue when students return Wednesday, the school may close for a few days under the terms of the potential agreement.

For those reasons, Morales said she and her Spry colleagues’ largest problems with the deal were no remote learning this week and the metric to close an individual school, which they feel is too high. But she is happy with the testing plan, and Spry is seeing more families sign up.

Alicia Ivey, a CPS health services nurse, said she planned to vote against the proposal because it assigned more work to nurses, who she said already have too many responsibilities — the potential agreement calls on nurses to help with contact tracing and testing at their schools.

Jennifer Johnson, the CTU’s chief of staff, said at Tuesday’s member meeting that the union raised nurses’ concerns with the district and was told guidance will be issued for schools to only use nurses for testing in a pinch so they aren’t taken away from their jobs.

Ivey cares for almost 1,400 students at three schools and often can’t go to all of them because she has so much on her plate. At one school, about half of students were out early last week because of COVID-19, she said.

“It’s impossible to care for a student, follow up with every student in each school every month that has a medical condition,” she said. “We were overworked before the pandemic, we’re double overworked now.”

Ivey accused CPS of trying to “save money by putting extra responsibilities on nurses. ... CPS and the mayor do not care about what our schools actually need.”

Contributing: Stefano Esposito