March 24, 2023

Chicago schools reopening news: Deal goes to final vote, but union delegates say ‘no confidence’ in mayor

Clearing a key hurdle

Monday, Feb. 8, 8:00 p.m. — A city on pins and needles as a tentative deal winds its way through union membership. The death of a beloved icon in education organizing. Monday was an emotional day capped by a vote taken by the union’s House of Delegates on a tentative agreement to reopen Chicago schools.

The tentative agreement passed the union’s House of Delegates with 85% approval; 13% of delegates voted against and 2% of delegates abstained. The final step is the broader membership vote. Teachers have 24 hours to weigh in.

The House of Delegates is generally considered a proxy for wider membership, so Chicago is likely one step closer to reopening school buildings after nearly 11 months of closures.

Still, it could be a bumpy re-entry. In a sign of potentially more challenges ahead for the district, delegates also issued a vote of no confidence in Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools’ leaders. That measure passed by 90%. Read more here.

A deal is in the works

Sunday, Feb. 7, 1:45 p.m. — First there was word late morning that there was a tentative agreement. Then the union said not so fast — the city had made a late Saturday offer that “merits review.” Call it progress. What we can say for sure: Chicago Teachers Union leaders are weighing a tentative agreement with Chicago Public Schools that could end the reopening impasse in the nation’s third largest school district. Now starts two days of member meetings to make the final call.

The offer would push the city’s reopening timeline beyond what was on the table last week, among several concessions to the union. Under the tentative agreement language, prekindergarten and some special education teachers and students would return Feb. 11. Kindergarten through fifth grade teachers would return Feb. 22, with students returning March 1, and sixth through eighth grade teachers would return March 1, with students following on March 8.

Here’s more on the concessions that appear to have ended the stalemate — and what needs to happen next.

A plan, a warning, and an unknown

Friday, Feb. 5, 6:30 p.m. — Mayor Lori Lightfoot said earlier in the week that she would not be making last-minute plans over the weekend. And Friday evening, Chicago released a proposal that said it will delay reopening schools for most elementary students until later this month and more gradually phase in students by grade.

Under the proposal, educators who teach prekindergarten and special education students with moderate and complex disabilities would be expected to return Monday, with students returning Tuesday. Other grades would report to classrooms later in the month. About 1 in 3 Chicago elementary students has said they plan to return.

The district said it will take disciplinary action against teachers Monday if they do not report to classrooms, an action that the union has previously said would provoke it to strike.

The union has not agreed to the delay. Here’s where things stand.

Union gives thumbs down to city’s ‘final offer’

Friday, Feb. 5, 1:20 p.m. — The Chicago Teachers Union said it will reject the city’s latest offer, described by officials earlier in the day as the “last, best and final.”

In a message to members, union president Jesse Sharkey says the union wants more concessions on a health metric for reopening, work-from-home accommodations, and vaccines for teachers. He wrote that the mayor’s proposal would only close schools for in-person learning districtwide if there are COVID-19 outbreaks on half of Chicago Public Schools campuses at the same time — an offer that does not cut it for the union. That proposal still offers work-from-home accommodation for 25% of union members who live with somebody at an elevated risk of coronavirus complications, an issue that has been an ongoing sticking point in negotiations as the district seeks to ensure adequate staffing in reopened elementary schools. 

According to union documents, the two sides have largely agreed on a weekly vaccine set-aside for teachers, but Friday’s email says the two sides are still in dispute over whether the city would guarantee increases as more supply comes through.

Other stumbling blocks include the city’s refusal to restore digital classroom access for 31 teachers who refused to work in-person, to negotiate about high school reopening and to decrease live instruction time for students, Sharkey wrote.

He struck a defiant tone, noting, “Three times in the past week, the mayor has drawn a line in the sand, and three times, our solidarity and our commitment has forced her and CPS leadership to step over that line.”

Hearing from the elected

Friday, Feb. 5, 11:00 a.m. — About a dozen elected officials from the county, city, and state joined a virtual press conference organized by the union to call on the mayor to stay the course on negotiations and not move to discipline teachers should a deal not be reached Friday.

CPS gives union ‘final offer’ as city holds breath

Friday, Feb. 5, 9 a.m. —In a joint statement this morning, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and schools chief Janice Jackson said they shared their “last, best, and final offer” to the district’s teachers union Thursday evening as the two sides try to reach an agreement about reopening elementary schools. 

City leaders said they expect a response from the union Friday and they’d announce later today whether classrooms could reopen Monday.

At a press conference with Black educators this morning, Stacy Davis Gates, the union’s vice president, criticized the “best and final” language for apparently closing the door to further back-and-forth.

But she did say the union’s bargaining team has been meeting since early this morning to review the proposal. The union said Thursday evening that outstanding issues included a  public health metric for reopening schools, accommodations for union members to work from home and changes to virtual instruction the union has proposed, such as reducing  live instruction time and increasing preparation time for teachers. Lightfoot has said that reducing instruction time is a non-starter.

At the virtual panel the union hosted, Black educators spoke about long-standing racial disparities in the city and the ways in which those disparities  have fueled public mistrust in the district’s reopening push. 

They referenced the closures of schools in predominantly Black communities over the past decade, historic under-investment in Black and Latino neighborhoods and what they described as a district failure to support and retain Black teachers. (According to a Chalkbeat analysis, by 2019, Chicago had lost a quarter of its Black teaching force over a six-year period.)

“It’s very unfortunate for this institution to think we will trust them with Black lives,” said teacher Whitney Jean.

Signs again point to another no-deal day

Thursday, Feb. 4, 9:30 p.m. — The Chicago Teachers Union just sent a schedule for Friday and at the top it reads “As Black and Latinx communities continue to lag in vaccinations and core equity needs, CPS continues to reject sensible safety proposals in bargaining.”

We’re taking it as a sign there’s no deal coalescing tonight. There’s no official word yet from City Hall, which earlier in the day sent two brief statements — one midday saying the city hadn’t “heard from CTU leadership since yesterday” and an early evening one-liner that said it had received a counterproposal and was working on a response.

Of course, there still could be a midnight deal. But the union indicated late Thursday that multiple issues of dispute remained: a districtwide metric for closing schools in case of a COVID-19 surge, the number of accommodations for educators with medically vulnerable household members, and remote learning improvements. 

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has said she’s willing to negotiate, but when it comes to remote learning, she is not willing to shorten instructional time.  

Earlier today, Lightfoot said she was losing patience with the constant delays and she wanted a deal done by tonight. Since Friday is a day off for students (teachers’ grades are due), there’s a little wiggle room, though not much, if the district wants to reopen schools next week.

‘We’ve slid backward’

Thursday, Feb. 4, 10:30 a.m. — Mayor Lori Lightfoot said negotiations with the union haven’t just stalled — they’ve “slid backward.” Within the same hour the union shared an open letter to parents that said it was prepared to “sacrifice even more” to get concessions on its safety demands, City Hall called a press conference in which the mayor said she was losing her patience with the delays. Lightfoot said the ongoing turmoil was causing “catastrophic disruption to the school system.” 

“Enough is enough. Time’s up, the runway is done, we need a deal today,” she said.

City Hall said on Wednesday night that it would extend a “cooling off” period in which no disciplinary action would be taken against teachers who continued to defy district orders and teach remotely. But, the mayor stressed Thursday morning, that grace period would be off the table if negotiations failed to net a deal by this evening.

Officials offered a few new insights into what they had offered the union in the past 24 hours to help bridge the divide. On teacher vaccinations and accommodations for teachers who want to continue working remotely, the mayor described a weekly vaccine set-aside for teachers and a dedicated 2,000-vaccine supply for educators who live with high-risk individuals and have sought work-from-home accommodations.

The expectation would be that educators who receive vaccines would return to work after the first dose. “We’ve offered a very specific plan — a dedicated vaccination plan for them. That proposal has been on the table for days. We’re waiting for an answer,” Lightfoot said.

Parents of locked-out teachers join union event

Thursday, Feb. 4, 7:00 a.m. — The day started with a Chicago Teachers Union press conference with several parents of students whose prekindergarten or special education teachers were blocked from their digital classrooms because they refused to report to work in person. The district said 31 teachers and 17 paraprofessional remain absent without leave and locked out. 

The union has said restoring virtual access for these members and granting them back pay is a condition for reaching a reopening agreement with the district. A virtual fundraiser for locked-out employees has raised about $80,000. 

The parents called on Gov. J.B. Pritzker to sign a bill that state lawmakers passed in January that would expand the union’s bargaining powers or to press the district to reinstate the teachers.

Ana Avila, the mother of a kindergarten student in a special education “cluster” classroom at Corkery Elementary, said her son’s class has not had a teacher for two weeks, with special education classroom assistants overseeing virtual learning. She said remote learning has been hard work for teachers and parents, but her son has made a lot of progress. 

“This is punishing the children the most because they are regressing,” she said.  

Most of the parents said they want the district to stick with all-virtual learning for the remainder of the school year. 

“What’s the point of sending them back?” Cindy Meza ,a parent at Sandoval Elementary, where she said there are no locked-out teachers. “It’s not going to be the same as before COVID.”

More time to ‘cool off’

Wednesday, Feb. 3. 9:40 p.m. — In a statement on social media, Chicago Public Schools said it planned to extend a “cooling off” period another 24 hours in hopes of reaching a deal with teachers. Again, the return to in-person schooling for an estimated 67,000 is delayed.

The district told families Wednesday evening that it would delay reopening until at least Monday. Negotiations will continue, making Thursday a remote school day. Friday was already slated to be a non-attendance day.

There were some signs of progress, according to a bargaining chart shared earlier in the evening by the Chicago Teachers Union. Chalkbeat Chicago’s Yana Kunichoff reports here on what issues appear resolved — and what areas of disagreement still dog negotiations.

Thursday is a question mark

Wednesday, Feb. 3. 7:00 p.m. — Negotiations over Chicago’s school reopening will move into Wednesday evening, according to a brief statement from city and district officials. 

“Discussions continue between CPS and CTU. We will provide an update as quickly as possible later this evening,” said the uncharacteristically brief statement shared at 7 p.m. by Chicago Public Schools.

That update comes after a 48-hour “cooling off period” called by the district in the hopes of netting a deal.

While Chicago has not yet released an update about in-person learning for students on Thursday, it is increasingly unlikely that school buildings will reopen this week. 

The union’s representative House of Delegates met on Wednesday night but did not make any major movement toward setting a strike date. The union is expected to hold a meeting to give an update on bargaining for members on Friday. 

News on the vaccination front

Wednesday, Feb. 3. 5:00 p.m. — One crucial issue at the heart of the talks is providing coronavirus vaccinations to teachers and support staff headed back to the classroom. The Chicago Teachers Union said on Twitter Wednesday that the city’s public health department and an urgent care clinic in Lincoln Park had partnered to offer vaccines to the district’s school clerks.

The district required its clerks to begin reporting to work in-person last August, setting off a legal standoff with the union, which argued that they should be allowed to continue working from home. 

“If the mayor can do this for clerks, she can do it for everyone,” the union tweeted.

Meanwhile, the district shared on Twitter a Bloomberg News article that quoted Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky saying that educators can return to schools safely without vaccines if districts take other safety measures.

The district has said it plans to open four vaccination sites in mid-February where school nurses will administer COVID-19 shots. 

The Chicago Sun-Times reported this week that 3,700 district employees have been vaccinated so far. 

Lingering questions about high school

Wednesday, Feb. 3. 2:30 p.m. — As Chicago waits to see if a 48-hour cooling-off period between the school district and union will pay peaceful dividends, Chalkbeat Chicago’s Mila Koumpilova writes about a missing piece in the conversation: high schools.

Chicago has made improving its high school experience a central goal, but for now, it has no high school reopening plan or target date. Officials have not broadly sought input from high school students and parents on how to make the most of what remains of this school year — and some families feel left out of the loop amid a contentious debate over reopening the district’s elementary schools. Here’s what they said.

Questions for Cardona

Tuesday, Feb. 2. 4:45 p.m. — On Wednesday, Miguel Cardona, a former teacher and principal who is President Joe Biden’s pick for U.S. Education Secretary, faces a Senate education committee confirmation hearing.

As our national desk colleague Matt Barnum reports, Cardona likely will face questions about reopening schools.

As Connecticut’s education commissioner, Cardona advocated for in-person instruction but managed to maintain strong relationships with unions. “We have to maintain the social and emotional well-being of our learners,” he said last year.

But with reopening progress stalled in cities like Chicago, expect questions about what specific actions the federal government can take to get schools open.

What could possibly come next? 

Tuesday, Feb. 2, 3:54 p.m. — Officials have paused Chicago’s acrimonious reopening debate to take a 48-hour “cooling off” period and try to come to an agreement with the city’s teachers union.

An official from Chicago Public Schools said negotiations would continue Tuesday and Wednesday. 

Wednesday will bring a planned House of Delegates meeting on the union side. 

That’s just a coincidence — the union’s representative body meets the first Wednesday of every month — but what happens at the meeting could be a sign of where the ongoing labor dispute over school reopening in Chicago goes next. 

If there’s a tentative agreement, it would likely go to delegates to review. If there’s no deal in sight, the delegates would be the ones to vote on a strike date. 

And if the delegates just discuss other procedural matters — well, then we’re looking at more negotiations ahead.

Time for a “cooling off”

Monday, Feb. 1, 5:45 p.m. — Chicago school officials said Monday evening they will hit pause on their hotly debated reopening plan and take a 48 hour “cooling off period.” No additional disciplinary action will be taken against teachers — but students who chose in-person learning will face delays.

Remote learning will continue Tuesday and Wednesday. Read more here.

An emotional call with community group leaders

Monday, Feb. 1, noon — Mayor Lori Lightfoot told a group of community leaders Monday morning that City Hall has floated a proposal that would prioritize vaccinating teachers at schools in the 15 neighborhoods hit hardest by COVID-19.  The areas would be determined by caseloads, hospitalizations, and  other data points.

“If you (live or teach) at a school in one of those neighborhoods, you will be prioritized,” she said in the virtual meeting.

Previously, Chicago Public Schools said that it was working on a plan that would include distribution sites, but vaccine shortages mean it wouldn’t be put into place until later in February. Teachers are part of the state’s 1B, or second, priority group and began qualifying for vaccines Jan. 25, but the city has said it could take months; the teachers union is pressuring the school district to allow educators to work remotely until they’ve had an opportunity to be vaccinated.

Lightfoot said today that if all teachers moved to the front of the line, everyone else — including seniors aged 65 and over — “would have to stand down six to eight weeks. That’s not doable.” 

In the sometimes emotional call, the mayor said the city is still negotiating with teachers on several issues, including staff and student testing, teacher accommodations for working at home, data thresholds that would dictate when schools open or close, and vaccination schedules. She said the city isn’t willing to negotiate on three additional issues brought by the union: a reduction of instruction time, defunding the school police program, and an affordable housing plan. (The union did not have an immediate response.)

At the end of the call, community leaders spoke on behalf of confused and distressed parents. “This is too much for us,” said one father of five, who suggested the idea of microgrants for families that have to suspend returning to their own jobs to supervise remote learning. “Parents have to have a real voice at the table.”

An anxious morning in Chicago

Monday, Feb. 1, 10:30 a.m. — It’s a Monday steeped in uncertainty and high anxiety in Chicago Public Schools: Reopening negotiations between the district and its teacher union still have not yielded an agreement. Unless the two sides strike a deal today, city leaders could make good on their pledge to lock elementary teachers who do not report to campuses out of their virtual classrooms and stop paying them. The Chicago Teachers Union has directed those educators to work from home; its members backed a resolution to go on strike if teachers are locked out for working remotely. 

At least a couple of parent petitions circulated Monday morning urging the district not to cut off digital access for teachers. One of them, started by parents opposed to the district’s reopening plan, had amassed more than 1,800 signatures by mid-morning. Some families also took part in a Monday “sick-out” to, as one parent put it, “demonstrate that parents are important stakeholders and deserve a voice in this conversation.” It’s not clear how widespread this protest was.

Meanwhile, some high school students wondered how the stalemate between the district and union might disrupt their finals this week. If a strike goes into effect, classes will halt for students at all grade levels.

A day without progress

Sunday, Jan. 31, 9:00 p.m. — Chicago’s second reopening wave will be pushed at least a day as the school district and the city’s teachers’ union failed to reach an agreement over the weekend. On Sunday evening, each side accused the other of not show up for virtual bargaining and exchanged back-and-forths over social media.

With no deal, there’s no in-person schooling Monday. The school district said it planned to reopen classrooms Tuesday for prekindergarten through eighth graders and special education students, and it issued an ultimatum: Teachers must report to work Monday to get ready or be locked out of critical technology platforms — a statement that inches the city closer to a strike. More here.

A more conciliatory tone

Saturday, Jan. 30. 5:30 p.m. — In an evening statement sent just as snow began to blanket parts of Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson said that the city had reached tentative agreement with the union on four key issues: contact tracing; ventilation; health and safety protocols, such as personal protective equipment and cleaning and disinfection protocols; and school-level safety committees that will provide some oversight on safety and mitigation.

Documents shared earlier in the week by Chicago Public Schools and the union showed that the two sides had largely agreed on these issues already, but notable today is the shift in tone from the mayor.

“We are encouraged by the progress that we have made,” she said in a joint statement with Jackson this evening. “There is still significant work that needs to be done on the remaining several open issues. We must make additional, meaningful progress today and tomorrow as time is running out.”

According to an e-mail from the union to members this afternoon, the two sides have still not reached agreement on who exactly receives accommodations and why; vaccination plans; the frequency of COVID-19 testing for students and staff; or the timing of the reopening. The mayor said Friday night that she still wanted to reopen schools on Monday as part of Chicago’s second phase reopening plan, but that appears unlikely given that an agreement has not been reached and some teachers haven’t been in classrooms for months.

Earlier today, the union organized car caravans to tout its message across several neighborhoods.

Weekend starts with sharp words

Friday, Jan. 29, 10:00 p.m. — At a late evening press conference, a visibly frustrated Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Chicago would move ahead with reopening schools, even without a deal with the Chicago Teachers Union.

But how would that play out in reality? It’s hard to say. Lightfoot said negotiations would continue through the weekend. “We will stay at the table as long as it takes,” she said.

The teachers union shot back on Twitter.

“Let’s really be clear: The educators in the room were working toward an agreement,” the union tweeted. “The politician is blowing it all to pieces.”

Read more here.

Chicago cancels third day of in-person class; union says its demands still not met 

Thursday, Jan. 28, 8:52 p.m. — Chicago canceled in-person classes for prekindergarten and special education students for the third day in a row Thursday evening as a deal with the teachers union remains out of reach. Students will continue to learn remotely on Friday.  

Some parents, meanwhile, began circulating emails calling for a student sickout on Monday, which is supposed to mark the return of Chicago’s largest wave of students so far.

The union released a chart to its members tonight that shows some movement but little agreement on key bargaining issues. There are only three days until Chicago’s second wave of students is expected back in school buildings. 

In response to a union request to test all in-person staff weekly, the district has proposed testing half of all staff each week, along with 25% of students in the 10 Chicago zip codes with the highest COVID-19 rates. 

The district also has offered to allow 20% of staff with high-risk families to work remotely, which falls short of the union’s request for all members with high-risk family members to be granted the accommodation. The district has also offered to allow all high-risk educators to work remotely.

Pritzker won’t say if he’ll sign CTU bargaining rights bill

Thursday, Jan. 28, 5:20 p.m. — Gov. J.B. Pritzker would not say if he would sign a bill that would repeal a section of state law that limits what the Chicago Teachers Union can bargain over. 

Since 1995, the state’s education labor law has prohibited the teachers union from bargaining over issues like class size, school day and year length, and more. The legislature passed the bargaining rights bill during a lame duck session as labor tensions were ramping up in Chicago over reopening classrooms.

When asked if he would sign the bill, Pritzker said during a press conference on Thursday that he’s looking into it. “I campaigned on expanding bargaining rights for teachers, Chicago is the only place in the state that doesn’t have those bargaining rights,” he said.

Pritzker said he has not made a final decision. If he does decide to sign the bill, it would put him at odds with Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who had urged legislators to make the bill effective in 2024 when the union is next up for contract negotiations. As written, the bill would go into effect immediately.

Wiggle room on the vaccine question?

Thursday, Jan. 28, 1:20 p.m. — In an interview our Chalkbeat colleague Kalyn Belsha conducted today with Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers reflected on the ongoing negotiations to reopen schools in Chicago, where she says she’s been in constant communication with union leadership.

Weingarten recently co-authored an op-ed in USA Today in which she said schools could reopen before vaccines were widely available, but strong mitigation measures needed to be in place. So what does she think about the Chicago’s union call to delay reopening schools until teachers can get vaccinated? 

“The AFT position is that we need to have the mitigation tools completely in place. We need to have this testing, so that you can see asymptomatic spread and asymptomatic transmission, including good tracing. We need to have the reasonable accommodations for those who are at risk, including family members who are at risk. There has to be a plan that vaccinations should be aligned with school reopening,” she said.

“So what you’re hearing from our leaders is that they’re not getting any of these things put together, so they’re defaulting to: Then at least protect people with vaccines. … You’re hearing the fear because these other things are not in place and because they haven’t been brought into real conversations about how to create a situation where we’re going to trust that it’s safe.”

Bottom line: There may be some wiggle room.

The 72 hour countdown until Monday

Thursday, Jan. 28, 11:00 a.m. — Asked Thursday on WBEZ Reset if it’s still even a possibility that Chicago could reopen schools to a second wave of K-8 students Monday, schools chief Janice Jackson insisted it’s still a go. 

“We expect students and staff to be in school on Monday,” she said when asked if likelihood had dimmed as negotiations continue and the weekend approaches.

Teachers originally were asked to report a week earlier to prepare for students. That timeline has shifted as the union has called for teachers to defy district orders and continue to work remotely.

Chicago cancels classes a second day

Wednesday, Jan. 27, 7:40 p.m. — Chicago will cancel in-person classes for prekindergarten and special education students for a second day as a deal with the teachers union remains out of reach.

The decision affects about 3,250 students who reported to classrooms within the first two weeks. Remote learning will continue.

In an email to parents, the district said it made the decision because the union has continued to direct its members to stay home. “We regret any distress this situation has caused, especially for children who have been learning happily and safely in their classrooms for the past few weeks.”

The email said the district still hopes to reopen schools Monday for a larger group of kindergarten through eighth graders, but prospects are dimming of making that a reality, since teachers have not been in school buildings for nearly a year.

New CDC analysis

Wednesday, Jan. 27, 3:00 p.m. — Among the data discussed at Wednesday’s meeting of Chicago’s Board of Education: New analysis released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found little evidence of coronavirus spread within 17 Wisconsin schools during the fall. (Since the schools didn’t conduct regular random testing, the study notes that it is “unable to rule out asymptomatic transmission within the school setting.”)

The three CDC researchers concluded in this opinion piece published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that “the preponderance of available evidence from the fall school semester has been reassuring insofar as the type of rapid spread that was frequently observed [elsewhere] has not been reported in education settings.”

CPS unveils readiness dashboard

Wednesday, Jan. 27, noon — Chicago Public Schools published a readiness dashboard intended to track school-level preparations, from whether air purifiers and face masks have been delivered to updates on the number of custodians hired.

Principals’ group proposes staggered reopening

Wednesday, Jan. 27, 11:00 a.m. — With in-person school stalled amid an ongoing labor dispute with teachers, the head of Chicago’s principals association proposed a new approach to reopening schools Wednesday: a pilot program with a staggered expansion. 

Unlike teachers, principals have seen first-hand the district’s plans for reopening, and have raised serious concerns about staffing and safety, said Troy LaRaviere, who leads the Chicago Principals & Administrators Association, speaking at a morning press conference. 

“Principals … were in person before march, they were in person after March, they’ll be in person today and they’ll be in person tomorrow,” said LaRaviere.

A pilot program of 100 to 150 schools (about one-fifth of district-run campuses) would allow the district to focus its financial and staffing resources on a smaller group of schools, argued LaRaviere. 

He also referenced a survey, taken earlier in January, of 377 principals and assistant principals on school reopening. Nearly half, or 48.3%, said they did not get sufficient guidance from the district on reopening. Slightly more than half said they had they did not have the staffing they needed to reopen safely.

Chicago principals and administration staff at many schools have been working in-person since March, in part to help steward the district’s widespread free meal program run out of school buildings. 

Chicago cancels in-person learning

Tuesday, Jan. 26, 5:30 p.m. — It’s official: There’s no agreement between Chicago Public Schools and the teachers union — and no in-person school Wednesday for the 3,200 or so prekindergarten and special education children in Chicago’s first reopening wave.

In announcing plans to defy district orders to report to campuses, the union forced the school district to suspend in-person learning.

The move throws Chicago’s efforts to reopen schools to more students into disarray. Chalkbeat Chicago reporters Yana Kunichoff and Mila Koumpilova break down where two sides are at disagreement and what could come next here.

Union tells Chicago teachers to prepare for picket lines this week 

Tuesday, Jan. 26, 1:00 p.m. — All Chicago teachers should prepare to work from home Wednesday and, if locked out of their online classrooms for refusing to go into school buildings, get ready to report to picket lines Thursday, according to a Monday night union communication to members. 

“Our efforts at the bargaining table will be reinforced by the unity you’re showing through actions,” the email said. 

The move comes as the clock is winding down on two extra days of negotiations between the school district and union, with few signs of an agreement in sight. 

Kindergarten through eighth grade teachers were initially expected to return to school buildings Monday. The district pushed back their first day of in-person work to Wednesday to allow for more time to come to an agreement, but have yet to announce a deal.  

Among the sticking points, according to a union presentation shared with members, are on what basis teachers would get accommodations for high-risk family members, the start date for a broader return of students, and a mutually agreed-upon COVID-19 metric for opening or closing schools. 

Still, the union’s message was not wholly negative. They said they had seen “more movement at the bargaining table in the last few days than there was over the last few months.” 

Speaking yesterday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot also struck a positive tone on negotiations, saying she was optimistic the school district and its teachers union will come to a school reopening agreement after what she described as a weekend of “very productive negotiations.”

Two takes on Joe Biden’s comments

Monday, Jan. 25, 3:30 p.m. — The ongoing dispute over school reopening in Chicago hit the national stage Monday when a reporter asked President Joe Biden whether Chicago should delay bringing teachers back until vaccines are widespread.

Biden, who has made reopening schools a core part of his agenda, said teachers should feel safe — “I believe we should make school classrooms safe and secure” — but suggested that widespread testing was the way to do that.

Chicago Public Schools and the city’s teachers union each seized on the statement. The district shared a video of Biden’s comment on Twitter with the tagline “we couldn’t agree more.” The union held an impromptu press conference thanking the president for his support.

The response shows, more than anything, that the intractable nature of the Chicago conflict is becoming a symbol of the roadblocks and complications of reopening schools in the era of COVID-19. 

Meanwhile, with only 24 hours until kindergarten to eighth grade teachers are expected to report back to school buildings, neither the district or union has shared a draft agreement.

Again, differing accounts of progress in reopening talks 

Monday, Jan. 25, 3:30 p.m. — Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Monday she is optimistic the school district and its teachers union will come to a school reopening agreement after what she described as a weekend of “very productive negotiations.”

Her confident posture stood in contrast with a more measured update from leaders of the Chicago Teachers Union that morning. They suggested the talks have made headway, but they said the two sides are unlikely to resolve remaining issues before Wednesday, when the district now expects educators in kindergarten through eighth grade to return to campuses. The union says the negotiations are “hemmed in” by a Feb. 1 reopening date for students in those grades, from which the district will not budge. 

Roughly 61% of the union’s members voted to back collectively refusing to report to in-person work. 

Lightfoot insisted the city is determined to reach an agreement. 

“I have every confidence that we’ll get something done at the bargaining table,” she said. She added, “We made a lot of progress over the weekend.” 

She did not offer specifics on issues the two sides might have resolved. 

CTU officials said among the remaining sticking points are two of their demands: that the district allows every teacher who lives with someone at an elevated risk of COVID-19 to work from home, and that it sets a public health metric to specify when it’s safe to keep school buildings open. The two sides have disagreed over conditions such as high blood pressure, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say might lead to elevated coronavirus risk, but the data is too limited to say definitively.

Teaching assistant Shavon Coleman said her daughter has a respiratory issue and her mother has high blood pressure. But she was denied an accommodation to work from home even though all students in her classroom chose to continue working remotely.

Parent physicians warn of toll on children

Monday, Jan. 25, 9:00 a.m. — Eleven parent physicians from Coonley Elementary School have written a letter sharing their own experience with the epidemic and urging the reopening to proceed as planned.

“We will have positive cases in our school after reopening, but this does not mean the system has failed. Based on a multitude of data, the rate of cases and the rate of spread in school will be no higher than in the general population, and with strict implementation of control measures, it may even be better,” they write. “In the last 11 months, we have gained much knowledge both in hospitals and from other schools – specifically that basic measures such as masks, hand washing and social distancing work to prevent COVID transmission.”

The letter warns of the toll of prolonged remote learning on students’ mental health and academics.

“We are seeing this mental health crisis play out in their practices everyday. We see it in our own kids. Those of us contributing to this letter have kids ranging in age from PreK to high school and the problems are not limited to one age group. Children are suffering from loneliness, fear, anxiety, stress, hopelessness, depression, and behavioral issues that did not exist before this isolation. In addition, many children are struggling academically and those of us who have to go to work everyday cannot be home to help them.”

“Having kids out of school is more than just a burden. It is a short and long-term danger to our children’s mental and physical health.”

To view the letter in full, go here.

Behind the scenes, teachers sit with uncertainty 

Sunday, Jan. 24, 6:00 p.m. — Uncertain what could unfold over the next two days, Chicago teachers expressed their concern and frustration in a union tele-town hall tonight, held just hours after the results of a union vote showed a slim majority of teachers rejected the district’s plan to return to school buildings. 

“How can they have us come in if my doctor says it’s not safe?” asked one educator. “When will we know if we return?” asked another. 

One prekindergarten teacher who has already begun reporting to her campus said she was upset that she would have to continue working in person (the district said pre-K and special education teachers who have already started reporting to school buildings should continue, even as it delayed the report-to-work date for educators in kindergarten to eighth grade.) “It doesn’t sound like solidarity if I’m still going back to what I’m going back to,” she said. 

Union leaders, who had been in negotiations with the district earlier that day, said there were several ongoing sticking points in discussions: when K-8 students would return, planned right now for Feb. 1, and agreement on a reopening metric. These are among the issues Chicago school officials flagged earlier this week. 

With 48 hours to go before teachers are now supposed to return to school buildings, CTU President Jesse Sharkey said union leadership wouldn’t agree to teachers walking in without an agreement. “We are going to keep bargaining,” said Sharkey. “A precondition to going back into schools is going to be an agreement. One way or another we are going to get an agreement.” 

The next 48 hours are worth watching

Sunday, Jan. 24, 5:00 p.m. — The results of a union vote are in, and the majority of Chicago’s teachers, clinicians and paraprofessionals have voted to defy district orders to report to school buildings on Monday.

The vote, which the union said passed with 71% of those voting in favor, throws the school district’s reopening efforts into disarray.

It’s not clear yet if the school district will challenge the legal grounds of the vote. Chicago Public Schools has said the decision to not report to campuses constitutes an “illegal strike,” Union leaders have rejected that idea, noting that teachers plan to continue teaching virtually.

The next 48 hours will be closely watched. After the vote results were tallied and announced, the school district quickly responded, saying they would push back the date teachers return to buildings until Wednesday, giving the two sides more time to negotiate.

Officials on both sides have said negotiations are progressing, with talks resuming this afternoon.

Read more of our coverage here.

Vaccinations coming, with a caveat

Friday, Jan. 22, 9:00 a.m. — Could vaccinations change the tone of the school reopening conversation in Chicago? On Friday, district officials said that they were launching a plan to start vaccinating employees at school sites starting in mid-February. They said they do not plan to hit pause on the plan to reopen K-8 classrooms in the interim.

The process could stretch out over months unless the state’s federal vaccine shipments increase, Chalkbeat Chicago’s Mila Koumpilova reports.

A view from another district  

Thursday, Jan. 21, 3:00 p.m. —  Reopening school buildings during a pandemic has raised questions both practical and philosophical: Who gets to decide whether a school is safe to reopen? When is a strike, in the era of remote learning, legal or illegal?  

Those issues are at the heart of a tense dispute between the teachers union and school district in Chicago, but we’re far from the only city grappling with them. The districts in Elmhurst and Cicero, two cities west of Chicago, are at loggerheads with their unions over similar issues. 

On Thursday, they both took their cases to the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board, the state body tasked with overseeing education-related labor disputes. Last winter, the board rejected an appeal from the Chicago Teachers Union to delay school reopening until, they argued, the school district began bargaining in good faith. 

In a sign of the length of labor practice suits, the board didn’t take a vote on the Elmhurst case, but heard oral arguments in two separate complaints against the district, one from the union and one from a paraprofessional group.

Cicero’s discussion Thursday struck similar tones to the one in Chicago. “We’ve given them metrics [for safety] they don’t like,” said Kimberly Jannotta, an attorney representing the school district. “They want to tell us what metrics to use.” 

In contrast to Chicago, the Cicero teachers union won injunctive relief on Thursday. The board’s legal counsel, Ellen Strizak said, the district had not offered clear information on what COVID-19 metrics it was using to determine when school reopening was safe. 

Cicero schools opened to teachers for the first time last week, but nearly half of its teachers refused to return to in-person learning.

The school district insists agreement is within reach

Thursday, Jan. 21, 11:00 a.m. — In a letter to teachers sent Thursday morning, Chicago Public Schools warned that refusing to report to school buildings next week would constitute an “illegal strike” and insisted that an agreement with the teachers union is “within reach.”

“We remain committed to continuing negotiations in good faith with union leadership,” the letter from the district’s chief talent officer said. “We are meeting every day and will continue to do so. An agreement is within reach, so long as we continue working hard together.”

The district also outlined where, in its view, it had reached agreement with union demands and where differences remained. Read more here.

Setting the stage for a strike

Wednesday, Jan. 20, 6:45 p.m. — A Wednesday night meeting of teachers union delegates has set in motion a series of events that could lead to walkouts next week, just as thousands more K-8 teachers are expected to return to school buildings.

Teachers have until Saturday at midnight to vote on a resolution that would start with walkouts and lead to a possible strike if district leadership and union officials can’t reach a reopening agreement. Chalkbeat Chicago’s Yana Kunichoff explains the next steps, and what’s at stake, here.

Clinicians write a letter

Wednesday, Jan. 20, 7:00 a.m. — Hundreds of Chicago Public Schools clinicians — social workers, speech pathologists, and other specialists who work primarily with children with disabilities — have signed a letter to the district about working conditions at reopened school buildings. In it, they argue the reopening plan does not factor in their “unique logistical considerations,” such as traveling between multiple

This article was originally posted on Chicago schools reopening news: Deal goes to final vote, but union delegates say ‘no confidence’ in mayor

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