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Chicago students to return to classrooms as teachers union votes on new safety deal

Chicago Public Schools students will head back to class on Wednesday, pending Chicago Teachers Union members' ratification of a tentative coronavirus school safety deal reached Monday night between the district and union negotiators.

CHICAGO (CN) — The Chicago Teachers Union reached a tentative Covid-19 safety deal with Chicago Public Schools on Monday night, with the district announcing that it plans to hold classes for the first time in a week on Wednesday.

Union delegates voted to suspend the week-long, remote-teaching-only labor action after the deal was struck, while rank-and-file members prepare to vote on it. CTU Chief of Staff Jen Johnson said members are expected to begin voting on the tentative safety deal on Tuesday, though the union has not stated when it expects voting to finish.

Before students return Wednesday, teachers are back in their classrooms on Tuesday. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS CEO Pedro Martinez lauded the tentative deal as a victory.

"[Martinez] and his team have done yeoman's work and been steadfast partners in making sure that we focus on getting our children back to in-person learning," Lightfoot said Monday night.

CTU leadership was much less enthusiastic. Union President Jesse Sharkey described the deal as "imperfect," and while the full text of the agreement has not been made publicly available, he and other union leaders made it clear that they had gotten little of what they hoped for.

"This should have never gotten this far... [Lightfoot] fought us every step of the way and now she behaves as if it's a victory that we get to survive," CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said in a Monday night press conference.

One major union demand which Johnson said had been cut from the tentative agreement was mandatory Covid-19 testing for students which parents would have to opt out of, not in to. Lightfoot described this proposal as "morally repugnant" last week, and said that mandatory testing would open the city up to liability suits. The union's proposal that individual schools shift to remote learning when 20% of staff and/or 30% of students are out with Covid-19, or when the school's mixed teacher/administrator health council deems it appropriate, is also out.

Instead, schools will shift to remote learning when 40% of students, or 25% of the total teaching staff, are out with positive Covid diagnoses. This only applies to when Chicago is considered a "high transmission" area by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. During periods of reduced spread, Johnson said 50% of students would need to be out with Covid before a school could transition to remote learning.

"These are not the exact metrics that we would want to hit, but it provides some safeguard going forward," Johnson said.

Since last Monday, the Chicago Public Health Department reported an average of over 1,000 new Covid-19 cases per day in patients younger than 17, the most of any age cohort in the city. These pediatric cases also peaked last Monday and Tuesday — the only days public school students were in their classrooms prior to the union's remote learning action.

Johnson said the tentative agreement also establishes that 10% of students at all schools will be randomly selected for Covid-19 testing on a weekly basis, and teachers will phonebank, with extra pay, to get parents to allow their children to be tested. The goal, Johnson said, is for the district to have 100% parental consent for student testing by the start of February. More rapid testing will also be made available in schools alongside in-care rooms. The city also agreed to provide schools with more KN95 masks for students and school staff, as well as provide each school with a dedicated contact tracing team.

Davis Gates said these concessions were still insufficient to deal with the scope of the pandemic's effects in schools.

"Our members just sacrificed pay to get face coverings," the union's vice president said Monday. "Why would anyone be happy about sacrificing pay for face coverings?"

Lightfoot herself faced criticism over the week-long labor action, not just from CTU but from progressive members of city government, including City Council member Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez. On Monday, Rodriguez Sanchez urged the federal government to investigate the mayor's use of the $1.9 billion in Covid relief funds the city received in 2021. Per Lightfoot's 2022 budget plan, about half those funds were used to pay off existing debts to private banks and other creditors. This technically violates the Treasury Department's ruling that cities and states cannot use relief funds to pay off debts, but that ruling will not take effect until April 1.

It is unclear what next steps either the city or the union will take should members choose not to ratify the deal – whether the union will resume its remote-only labor action or the district will continue to insist on resuming in-person learning.

Lightfoot dismissed the question at Monday night's press conference.

"I'm going to emphasize the positive," the mayor said. "I think it's meaningful that the [CTU] House of Delegates voted to end the [remote-only action], and certainly my hope is that the rank-and-file teachers... will ratify the agreement."

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