Failing to reach an agreement with Chicago Public Schools over reopening conditions this week, the Chicago Teachers Union has told its members to work from home Wednesday and prepare for a strike Thursday if city officials ban remote teaching in response.
Leaders of both the union and the school district had held out hope that a deal could be worked out ahead of Wednesday’s deadline for thousands of elementary and middle school staff to report to schools, but the disagreements proved too large to sort out.
The immediate implications of the union’s collective decision to reject in-person work because of health and safety concerns is that about 3,200 preschool and special education students will return to remote learning Wednesday, just two weeks after resuming in-person instruction for the first time since last March.
Schools chief Janice Jackson wrote in a letter to families Tuesday that “the district has no choice but to ask parents to keep your children home tomorrow.”
“Without assurance that there is adequate teaching staff for in-person learning, we must prioritize student safety and ask that parents keep their children home for remote learning tomorrow,” Jackson wrote.
The broader and potentially more damaging consequences of the impasse could be CPS classes coming entirely to a stop — even for high schools, which are not due to return to classrooms anytime soon and have final exams scheduled for next week.
“So it’s come to this,” the union wrote in an email to members Tuesday afternoon. “Short of some late-breaking change, *all* CTU members will begin working remotely tomorrow, Wednesday, January 27. And if CPS retaliates against members for exercising their right to a safe workplace, *all* CTU members will stop working on Thursday and set up picket lines at their schools.”
The union added in statement that it’s seeking a mediator to broker an agreement with the district. CTU leaders called CPS’ latest proposal “both unsafe and unacceptable.”
“We are willing to keep teaching, but CPS has said they will lock us out,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said. “We are willing to keep negotiating, but CPS has refused to back down from insisting that 80% of educators and support staff person in every elementary school be back in class on February 1 to serve less than 20% of the students.”
The CTU has said its initial action planned for Wednesday is not technically a strike since educators plan to continue teaching from home.
It remains to be seen, however, if CPS will allow teachers to work remotely until an agreement is reached with the CTU. District officials have said they will view the union’s collective labor action as a strike — meaning classes could be halted and workers would no longer be paid.
Jackson said in a separate letter to all CPS employees Tuesday that the district still expects all staff members who don’t have approved health accommodations to report to schools Wednesday. She left open the possibility that remote classes could continue, and said she hopes to reach an agreement by the planned Feb. 1 return of thousands of elementary and middle school students.
About 3,800 preschool and special education cluster program teachers and staff were ordered to return to schools earlier this month for the resumption of in-person learning for their students. Another 10,000 staff members in kindergarten through eighth grades were due back Monday, but CPS pushed that date back to Wednesday to create more time for negotiations.
K-8 schools are scheduled to reopen Feb. 1 for an estimated 71,000 students — out of 191,000 children in those grades — who have said they plan to return. It’s not clear if all those students will return — only half of the pre-K and special education students who opted in to in-person learning have returned this month, accounting for 19% of the total eligible.
“It’s horrifying. All the teachers are completely freaking out,” said one elementary teacher, who asked not to be named. She questioned why CPS couldn’t wait to start in-person classes until teachers are vaccinated in the near future.
“It’s such a nightmare. It’s so sad to hear but some teachers are saying, ‘I am going to go to work. I can’t not get a paycheck.’ It’s a pandemic and so many people are going through so many things.”
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.