Chicago Teachers Union members have accepted school reopening terms offered by Chicago Public Schools, ending a monthslong standoff with district officials and setting the nation’s third-largest school system on a path to bring back tens of thousands of students and teachers to classrooms.
The deal puts school workers on a fast track for vaccines, creates health and safety standards and committees for over 500 schools, lays out a comprehensive testing plan and delays the return of most students until March — all measures the union pushed for in protracted negotiations.
“The vast majority of CPS families have been separated from their schools for nearly a year, and the ratification of our agreement ensures families have options to choose in-person learning and make a plan that is best for them,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS chief Janice Jackson said in a joint statement Wednesday morning.
“We look forward to welcoming students as they return to their classrooms in the days ahead. … Our schools are fully prepared to safely welcome back students beginning tomorrow, and we are eager to provide additional support for the families who need more than remote learning can provide.”
The union’s rank-and-file teachers and support staff approved the agreement in a one-day vote held Tuesday, with 68% of voting members — 13,681 of 20,275 — favoring the deal, surpassing the simple majority needed, the CTU announced after voting ended at midnight. But the tally was even closer than it appeared, with more than 5,000 members not voting, a sign of the split views on reopening schools during the pandemic.
Union President Jesse Sharkey didn’t mince words in a letter to members early Wednesday. He rebuked Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s handling of negotiations and even the final agreement, though he acknowledged it was an improvement over the district’s original plan.
“Let me be clear. This plan is not what any of us deserve. Not us. Not our students. Not their families. The fact that CPS could not delay reopening a few short weeks to ramp up vaccinations and preparations in schools is a disgrace,” Sharkey wrote. “This agreement represents where we should have started months ago, not where this has landed. That is a stain on the record of their administration.
“This agreement also puts us in a vastly better position than we were in November, when even after months of struggle, CPS’ ‘planning’ and ‘preparation’ would have been laughable were it not also so dangerous.”
The union’s representative governing body, its 600-member House of Delegates, issued a vote of no confidence in Lightfoot and her schools leaders Monday with 90% approval.
The vote to reopen schools nonetheless brought a sigh of relief for Lightfoot and district leaders, who avoided a second teachers strike in as many school years under their watch.
The move will also be welcomed by families who have hoped to send their kids back to school, such as working class parents who have struggled to balance jobs with remote learning and parents who have worried about the pandemic’s isolation on their children’s mental health.
But the long-coming return also moved educators and families from one uncertain period to another as they now prepare to face new challenges and routines. Though the district and teachers union have agreed how and when to reopen schools, both acknowledge the path forward will be anything but smooth sailing.
Up to 67,000 preschool through eighth grade students are set to go back to schools two days a week. Pre-kindergarten and cluster staff and students will return Thursday; kindergarten through fifth grade staff will return Feb. 22 followed by their students March 1; and sixth through eighth grade staff will go back March 1 and their students return March 8. High school students are not currently scheduled to return in person.
In the two January weeks that 3,000 staff members reported to schools with about 3,200 preschoolers and special educations students, 87 adults and 12 students tested positive for COVID-19, according to district records. By the end of that period, a total of 14 student pods were in quarantine because of potential exposure at 519 schools. City officials have said the vast majority of those cases have not been found to have been transmitted in schools.
Another 123,000 pre-K through eighth grade students have chosen to continue full-time remote learning through the end of the third quarter in April. Many of those students will have revised schedules and even new teachers as schools remake their plans to adapt to hybrid learning. Students and parents have asked the district to provide improved resources for virtual learning, including mental health support and reduced screen time. CPS has so far denied those requests.
At least 2,000 vaccine doses are being offered to pre-kindergarten and special education cluster program staff this week, with their students scheduled to return to schools Thursday. The city is also offering 1,000 vaccines this week to staff who asked to continue working from home because they live with a medically vulnerable household member. Those workers will be required to return two weeks after their first dose.
The city’s broader schools vaccination plan includes inoculations for 1,500 CPS workers each week at four district sites later this month. Priority will be given to employees returning to work sooner, as well as those who are at higher risk due to age or demographics.
A group of Black and Latino parents that has advocated for schools to reopen wrote in a letter to CPS and CTU leaders Tuesday night that they hoped the union would accept the reopening terms and pleaded for the district to offer families a voice at the decision-making table moving forward.
“So many relationships have been damaged through this strife, and we look forward to being active participants in healing and moving us all forward in unity, for our children,” the parents wrote.
Schools chief Janice Jackson told families in an email Tuesday that she, Lightfoot and Public Health Commissioner Dr. Arwady will host a virtual town hall at 6 p.m. Wednesday to answer questions about the return to in-person learning.
“We’ll talk about what we’re doing to keep our school communities safe, school readiness, vaccinations and more,” Jackson wrote. “As we head into the new year, we are going to create additional opportunities for families to engage and inform the district’s planning.”
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