Minutes after the Chicago Teachers Union made a new proposal to Chicago Public Schools Saturday that it believed would “get students back to learning safely,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot told union leaders “you’re not listening” and demanded teachers return to classrooms.
The union’s proposal called for remote classes most of next week and a return to in-person classes the following Tuesday, appearing to make concessions in some of its demands — but apparently not enough for the mayor to back down from her refusal of remote learning next week.
On perhaps the thorniest issue, coronavirus testing, the CTU is still calling for an opt-out program that would widely increase student participation in virus screening, but which the mayor called “morally repugnant” earlier in the week. In their latest proposal, the CTU dropped its call for all students to be tested before they return for in-person classes.
“CTU leadership, you’re not listening,” Lightfoot and CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said in a statement. “The best, safest place for kids to be is in school. Students need to be back in person as soon as possible. That’s what parents want. That’s what the science supports. We will not relent.”
The pair said Friday that negotiations “remain productive but must be concluded this weekend.”
The union convened its House of Delegates, made up of nearly 800 school representatives, to discuss the proposal Saturday morning before publicly releasing the details.
CTU leaders said in a statement the “comprehensive proposal addresses all outstanding issues between the CTU and the mayor, would end Lightfoot’s lockout and land hard safety protections for students and staff for the rest of the school year.”
“This is something we feel like actually provides a solution, provides a comprehensive framework which is going to restart instruction, give parents the clarity they need and give us a definite date by which we restart all things that go along with school,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey told reporters at a press conference at the union’s Near West Side headquarters.
The union has wanted a safety agreement since the fall but hadn’t taken a work action until the Omicron surge that has sent Chicago infections to record highs. The lack of an agreement, however, has “undermined trust and it’s put us at risk for this exact situation,” Sharkey said.
“If we had a willing partner in negotiations, someone who is willing to join with us and solve the issues, the difficulties of a pandemic, I don’t think we ever would have been in this situation,” he said.
Stacy Davis Gates, the union vice president, added: “This is the solution... We don’t foresee that this has to extend any further than what has already happened,” though she said “we can’t handicap what they do on the other side.”
Moments later, the mayor rejected the proposal.
A later statement from CPS detailed the district’s responses to each piece of the offer but had a more positive outlook: “We recognize that we are growing closer on many important issues. We’re confident that continued negotiations will support the return to in-person learning next week.”
The district had told principals Friday afternoon that Monday’s classes would be canceled, and many let their school communities know. But later in the evening, the city left open the possibility that an agreement could be reached in time to get kids back in school “hopefully on Monday. We know families need to plan ahead and we will be sending additional communication over the weekend with a status update regarding classes on Monday.”
The CTU’s new proposal called for teachers to report to buildings Monday to distribute laptops to families then teach remote classes from their schools Wednesday through the end of the week. In-person school would resume the following Tuesday after the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday. CPS rejected that idea and called for a return to classrooms “as soon as possible.”
The union kept its demand for reinstating last school year’s threshold that would trigger district-wide school closures if the citywide test positivity rate is 10% or higher and that rate has increased for seven consecutive days, each day at least a fifth higher than the week before. Classes would go remote for two weeks if those criteria are met.
That threshold was reached in late December, but with a slight day-to-day decrease in the average citywide testing positivity rate heading into the weekend, in-person classes would be poised to resume under the terms proposed by the CTU. But given the volatility of the statewide surge in cases since last month, that could soon change. CPS also rejected this demand.
The proposal adopted the district’s idea for a metric tied to staff and student absences to close individual schools but made a tweak. CPS had proposed 40% of staff or 50% of students absent because of COVID-19 would lead to a school shutdown. The union proposed 25% staff absences (and 20% in schools with 100 or more employees) or 30% of student absences in elementary schools and 25% in high schools. CPS said it’ll keep negotiating this piece.
On testing, the CTU maintained its demand for an opt-out testing program, which would default to all students registered for testing and parents notified with an ability to opt out. In the proposal, at least 10% of the students and educators registered for testing would be randomly selected for screening every week. The union wants the program to start Jan. 18.
Lightfoot has argued opt-out testing, which dozens of other Illinois districts and more nationwide have been administering this school year, is “morally repugnant” because she didn’t want to “rob” parents of the right to decide for themselves whether their kids should get tested for the virus. Parents should sign forms affirming their written consent to testing, she said, rather than be notified and have a chance to take their child out of the program. The district again rejected the idea Saturday.
The CTU also proposed every school should have a supply of take-home COVID-19 tests for students with symptoms or staff who request one — CPS responded that tests will be done in school. Every staff member would be required to test negative before returning to classes under CTU’s proposal — the district said it’ll test staff but not as a requirement before returning.
In a statement Saturday night, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced Abbott Laboratories and SHIELD Illinois would send 350,000 rapid tests to CPS.
CPS said it’ll meet CTU’s demands for: each school to create a contact tracing team to help the district report cases and identify close contacts; K95 masks for students and staff; reinstating the online health screener for schools to use if they choose; incentivizing substitute workers; and allowing staff to take unpaid leaves of absence.
The union also asked for the lost instructional days during this dispute to be made up at the end of the school year with no CTU members losing pay — which CPS rejected.