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Despite misgivings, Chicago teachers ratify school safety deal

Fifty-five percent of the teachers union’s rank-and-file voting members chose to accept the agreement, despite widespread disappointment with its terms.

CHICAGO (CN) — The rank-and-file members of the Chicago Teachers Union finished voting Wednesday night to accept the tentative pandemic school safety deal reached Monday between the union and Chicago Public Schools that allowed students to return to classrooms.

Unlike Monday, and unlike on Jan. 4 when the union announced it would not comply with the district's in-person learning plan, the announcement of Wednesday night's ratification was subdued, posted to the CTU website without fanfare or much national media attention.

In truth, the deal remains unpopular even with many rank-and-file union members. Of the 70% of union members that voted on the deal between Tuesday and Wednesday, only 55% voted to accept it while 45% opposed it. Union leadership also seemed unhappy with the deal, even as early as Monday night. CTU President Jesse Sharkey called the agreement "imperfect," and the process of reaching it "unpleasant."

“This agreement covers only a portion of the safety guarantees that every one of our school communities deserve. Put bluntly, we have a boss who does not know how to negotiate, does not know how to hear real concerns and is not willing to respect our rank and file enough to listen to us when we tell her we need more protection," Sharkey wrote in a Wednesday statement accompanying news of the deal's ratification, directing his ire at Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

On Monday, CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates bemoaned how much it took from union members to get what she considered very little.

"Our members just sacrificed pay to get face coverings," Davis Gates said. "Why would anyone be happy about sacrificing pay for face coverings?"

The union did not return calls for comment on the exact details of the agreement, released Wednesday night, but the text of the deal shows the union had to scale back its initial demands from the district. It initially proposed 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.

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

Simon Lopez, a Chicago Public Schools graduate himself whose daughter is now a CPS student, said he preferred the union's proposal.

"I feel those percentages are too high," Lopez said. "It was better lower."

The union's demands for mandatory student testing, which parents would have to opt out of, was also canned. Though several other large school districts throughout the country already use an opt-out testing system, the proposal was a non-starter for Lightfoot and her appointed school board. The mayor described the opt-out plan as "morally repugnant" last week, and said it would expose the school district to liability lawsuits.

"The fact of the matter is, if we did something that then parents connected to some adverse reaction in a child, imagine the liability that we would be opening up ourselves to," Lightfoot said on Jan. 5.

Lightfoot herself announced Tuesday that she had tested positive for Covid.

On Wednesday and Thursday, the first days students were supposed to be back in class following the union's week-long remote-only labor action, the reopening was rough. At least three schools in the district qualified to transition to remote learning under the new deal's terms on Wednesday, with parents and teachers reporting missing staff, unsanitary conditions, and a lack of safety equipment.

"Two [masks] for me. This will last me one day. Where are the masks for students?," Elementary school teacher Anna McGowan wrote Thursday in response to Lightfoot's promise, included in the safety agreement, to deliver KN95 masks to all CPS students and staff.

"There are 9 people in my first period class. this is not school or learning, this is a babysitting center g," one Chicago high school student tweeted Thursday.

Chi-RADS, a Chicago anti-capitalist student activist group, announced Tuesday that it was planning a district-wide walkout of public high school students on Friday to protest these conditions. Similar to other student walkouts in New York and Oakland, the Chi-RADS action is in response to what the youth organizers say is the failure of the educational system and its adult leaders to protect their physical and mental well-being.

"We stand with ourselves, our own safety, our own health. We keep us safe, we keep us loved," Chi-RADS wrote Tuesday.

The group is particularly critical of CPS CEO Pedro Martinez, whose leadership has also drawn criticism from the Chicago Principals & Administrators Association, and Dr. Allison Arwady, the city's Commissioner for the Department of Public Health. A list of demands Chi-RADS published at the start of CTU's remote-only action condemned Martinez and Arwady's criticisms of the union, and their alleged tokenization of students to further their own institutions' interests. The statement demanded that students themselves be brought to the bargaining table when the matter of their own education is up for debate.

"End your use of performative language when attempting to fulfill the mayor's political agenda. In order to genuinely take into account the best interest of students, ask us directly or include us in conversations," it read.

Chi-RADs did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

CTU itself said Wednesday night that it would continue fighting for the health and safety of it students and members, against the mayor if necessary. The deal is set to expire in August, which will give the union a fresh chance to bargain for increased health and safety measures in classrooms.

"Our members’ vote today represents a union’s, and a city’s, frustration with a mayor that has simmered since the beginning of this pandemic... But you deserve more, and the families you serve deserve more, and we will continue fighting for that," Sharkey said.

Lopez, meanwhile, is nonpartisan. He said he just wants the union and the district to keep his daughter safe at school, especially since the CDC predicts Covid-19 could soon become endemic.

"We need something from the beginning [of the school year], not this," he said. "Just have a more concrete plan for going remote. [Covid] only takes a few seconds to spread."

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