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Return to CPS high schools could lead to 2nd battle over reopening, CTU leaders warn

CPS has said it plans to make no changes to remote learning, which Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said is a “slap in the face” for students who will continue to take classes from home.

Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey and Vice President Stacy Davis Gates, interviewed by Sun-Times City Hall reporter Fran Spielman.
Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey and Vice President Stacy Davis Gates.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

Talks that produced an agreement to gradually reopen Chicago Public Schools were a “cauldron of tension” that, if repeated, could block the reopening of high schools if the district won’t agree to changes to remote learning, union leaders warned Friday.

Schools CEO Janice Jackson has called reopening high schools a “top priority” and said she is “beginning those discussions” with the CTU, using as a starting point the deal that set the stage for the return of kids in pre-K, special ed clusters and students kindergarten through eighth grade. But Jackson has ruled out any changes to remote learning. She’s not about to reduce the amount of mandatory screen time or adjust schedules, arguing she wants students in school “more — not less.”

Those comments didn’t sit well with Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates, who told the Chicago Sun-Times on Friday: “To hear them say ... that they have made all the improvements to remote learning that they intend to make is a slap in the face for those who will continue to be in remote learning.”

Davis Gates was particularly concerned about the difficulty of instructors who will have to simultaneously teach students in a classroom along with those who chose to continue to learn remotely.

“Juxtapose to that our educators who have ... children on a screen and children in front of them. How do you instruct like that?” she asked.

If Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s negotiators maintain that stance on remote learning and refuse to accommodate the demands of groups like GoodKids MadCity, they could be headed for another reopening stalemate.

“They’re saying that, ‘We need a better remote learning schedule because many of us won’t be returning to the building. We need flexibility because many of us are also working in grocery stores’ ... because they are living in working-class households because mom or dad or both no longer work,” Davis Gates said.

There are other concerns about reopening high schools, including the fact that older teens could be more likely to spread the virus than younger kids and the fact that students in higher grades typically switch classrooms for every subject. That would make it far harder to limit student contact with other students and staff by having them remain in smaller pods in the same room, as they are planning to do in elementary schools.

‘Cauldron of tension’

Meanwhile, CTU President Jesse Sharkey said it shouldn’t have taken the threat of a second teachers strike to force Lightfoot to take the union’s concerns seriously about making schools safe during the coronavirus pandemic.

Sharkey argued that the negotiations were a “cauldron of tension and difficulty” because Lightfoot and Jackson began the negotiations by declaring through a legal filing that they had “no intent to bargain with us about whether or when to reopen.”

“We basically felt ignored, dictated to, run over and treated like our concerns were bogus and completely unjustified,” said Sharkey, whose members took a 90 percent no-confidence vote in Lightfoot this week.

“If you want to teach someone to swim, you don’t tell them that swimming is safe and throw them into the deep end of the pool. ... You let children play in the shallow end and splash around in it. And they see that it’s fun and it’s safe. That’s the way we should have approached school opening. But when we tried to say that, we were ignored, patronized and bullied.”

The CTU endorsed County Board President Toni Preckwinkle over Lightfoot and was one of Preckwinkle’s biggest financial supporters. The mayor, who walloped Preckwinkle in the mayoral run-off, has predicted that the high-stakes tension will continue until 2023 when she expects the union to field a candidate for mayor against her.

On Friday, Davis Gates said her singular focus is on “implementing this agreement.” She refused to even discuss the possibility of challenging Lightfoot.

Whatever the political future holds, Sharkey insisted that CTU opposition to the rookie mayor is not personal.

“This is a union that has had a series of mayors who have acted arrogantly and unilaterally and we’ve fought them all. They’ve been bad bosses. We’re a union that fights bad bosses,” Sharkey said.

“That was true for Daley. That was true for Rahm. And that was true for Lightfoot. People want to personalize this and make it about us and Lightfoot. It doesn’t fit the fact pattern that we have.”