COVID-19 safety pact between Chicago Public Schools and teachers union near as CTU plans vote on latest offer

The district and the teachers union have negotiated all summer in hopes of avoiding the contentious battles of the past two years over pandemic safety.

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Adan Meza, 29, a teacher at Benito Juarez High School, poses for a photo as he protests with other members of the Chicago Teachers Union and supporters while the union stages a car caravan protest outside City Hall in the Loop, Wednesday evening, Jan. 5, 2022.

The Chicago Teachers Union’s House of Delegates is set to vote on Chicago Public Schools’ latest offer on a COVID-19 safety agreement for the upcoming school year.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union are nearing an agreement on COVID-19 safety measures for the new school year as union officials consider a district offer that could provide stability for staff and families this winter.

The district and teachers union have negotiated all summer in hopes of avoiding the contentious battles of the past two years over pandemic safety. In both cases, Mayor Lori Lightfoot refused teachers’ efforts to continue working from home at the height of the virus’ spread through the city.

CTU leaders on Tuesday brought CPS’ latest proposal — involving largely the same virus protections as last year — to their executive board, which decided to advance the offer to the union’s House of Delegates for a vote next Wednesday.

The 800-member representative body could decide to recommend a tentative deal to its full membership, send its leaders back to the bargaining table or pass along the terms to members without a recommendation one way or another.

“CPS has made an offer on a safety agreement that we think is worthy of serious consideration,” CTU deputy general counsel Thad Goodchild said in an interview Wednesday.

The potential deal would be in effect through August 2023. CTU leaders plan to present the details to the full membership in an online meeting Thursday.

CPS officials didn’t immediately comment.

No matter the outcome of the vote, the advancement to the House of Delegates represents a positive step in negotiations. CPS and CTU were nowhere near an agreement at this time last year, leaving themselves open to a major dispute in the winter when the highly contagious omicron variant of COVID-19 took over the city.

If the union accepts the offer, the development would represent a major first win for CTU President Stacy Davis Gates, who served as vice president under her predecessor, Jesse Sharkey, and helped oversee a contentious relationship between the union and city over the past few years.

Goodchild said the CTU is “cautiously optimistic” its dealings with CPS are headed in a better direction.

“The union’s leadership — we had new officers take office on July 1 — have underscored a desire to reset the relationship with the school district and have asked them to work with us as genuine partners,” Goodchild said in an interview Wednesday.

Then Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates speaks beside then President Jesse Sharkey at a news conference and protest in November.

Then-Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates speaks beside then-President Jesse Sharkey at a news conference and protest last November.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

“There is a lot of built-up distrust over the course of the past number of years, and it’s going to take time to work through. But our leadership and our membership have made a concerted effort to want to be genuine partners on giving Chicago students the schools they deserve.”

Ziedre Foster, who leads the CTU’s grievance department, said the last two negotiations helped set the groundwork for this time around.

“There were areas we had mutual understanding,” she said. “We recognized that we won’t agree on everything, but I think this round of negotiations definitely was more productive than it has been in the past.

“The pandemic has definitely taken a toll on students, families, teachers, communities. And I think folks are looking forward to a school year without so much disruption. ... COVID in 2022 is not what we experienced two years ago. And I think our members recognize that things have changed. But I do also think members just have concerns just to make sure that they are safe, and they can go home safe to their families.”

The two sides have discussed maintaining largely the same virus protections as last year — an in-school testing program, events to vaccinate students and their families, school cleaning and optional masks. It also keeps incentives for substitute teachers as the district grapples with an ongoing staffing shortage, and puts $10 million toward so-called “cadre” substitutes who are more or less full-time subs in geographic areas of the district.

CPS and CTU also spent time discussing how to handle evolving public health guidance, with the CTU insisting that CPS honor its agreement and return to discussions if it intends to change any piece of the plan.

Should the House of Delegates vote to approve the district’s offer, a full membership vote to reach a full agreement would be held late next week.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ, and Nader Issa is the Sun-Times’ education reporter.

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