Chicago Teachers Union Approves Deal to Reopen Schools

The union representing educators in Chicago Public Schools voted in favor of an agreement to return to in-person learning after months of negotiations.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson speaks during a news conference on Sunday at City Hall as Mayor Lori Lightfoot listens. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune via AP, File)

CHICAGO (CN) — The Chicago Teachers Union voted Wednesday to finally return to in-person learning for most of the city’s school children.

The vote came after several weeks of tense back-and-forth between the union and Mayor Lori Lightfoot, with teachers saying the school district’s planned safety measures were not enough to keep them and their students safe from Covid-19.

The plan includes sanitation, classroom safety measures and daily screenings as well as administering vaccines to staff and contact tracing in the event on an outbreak.

The nation’s third largest school district has been fully remote for nearly a year, shutting down with the rest of the city last March to battle the coronavirus pandemic.

Pre-K and some “cluster program” students returned to school in small numbers on Jan. 4, and K-8 students who chose to return were supposed to reenter the classroom on Feb. 1. The third wave of students in high school do not have a hard date to be back.

CTU voted in favor of a collective action a week earlier, refusing to stop teaching remotely until their safety demands were met.

The mayor threatened to lock teachers out of their remote learning software and consider them “absent without leave” if they didn’t go back to school, but the union held its ground until reaching a tentative agreement with the school district 10 days later.

“This vote reaffirms the strength and fairness of our plan, which provides families and employees certainty about returning to schools and guarantees the best possible health and safety protocols,” Lightfoot said Wednesday in a joint statement with Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson. “We look forward to welcoming students as they return to their classrooms in the days ahead.”

CTU President Jessie Sharkey was not so positive about school reopening in a letter announcing the results of the vote to union members.

“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 preparation in schools is a disgrace,” he said.

“But,” Sharkey added, “the agreement does put 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 last showdown with the mayor was a strike over wage increases and classroom resources in 2019, keeping students out of school for 11 days.

Lightfoot doubled down on easing Covid-19 precautions, also announcing Wednesday that bars without food service could resume business at 25% capacity or 50 guests per floor with promises of increasing capacity to 40% once certain metrics are met.

Previous restrictions only allowed bars and restaurants serving food to be open at a limited capacity.

Illinois was down to 2,073 new Covid-19 cases Tuesday from a peak of over 15,000 in one day in November and has currently given 1.47 million doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

The state is in phase 1b of the vaccine rollout, which includes residents over 65 and essential workers such as teachers.

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