Hannah Leone, Gregory Pratt, Jessica Villagomez and Katherine Rosenberg-Douglas
CHICAGO — Mayor Lori Lightfoot has ordered all Chicago Public Schools teachers who don’t have permission to stay home due to medical concerns to come back to the classroom Monday, setting up potential lockouts that could spur another teachers strike.
“We expect all of our teachers who have not received a specific accommodation to come to school tomorrow,” Lightfoot said Sunday evening.
According to CPS, in-person learning for pre-K through eighth grade will now begin Tuesday.
CPS CEO Janice Jackson said teachers who fail to report to buildings Monday “will have their access to Google Suite cut off at the end of the business day,” an action Chicago Teachers Union leaders said would lead to a strike.
CTU President Jesse Sharkey said he hopes teachers aren’t locked out Monday. But if they are, the next step would be calling the House of Delegates.
“We remain ready, willing and able to deliver remote instruction,” Sharkey said.
Asked what she would tell the 70% of parents who are keeping their children remote about why their teachers are being locked out, Lightfoot said, “I think the question is … what do we tell those parents about the teachers who are refusing to show up to class? That’s really the question.”
Lightfoot said her administration will “stay up all night to get a deal done.”
“We are practically begging CTU to come to the table to get a deal done,” she said.
The parties were supposed to resume bargaining at 11 a.m. Sunday.
The district and Lightfoot had said they wanted schools to open Monday, with as many as 67,000 students attending, of which about 62,000 would be kindergarten through eighth grade students attending for the first time since schools closed last March.
Schools first reopened Jan. 11 to preschool and special education students whose families chose in-person learning, with nearly 3,300 ultimately returning that week, according to CPS.
Lightfoot struck a less negative tone toward the union but blamed CTU leaders for the impasse.
“Our schools are safe,” Lightfoot said. “We know that because we have studied what’s happened in other school systems in our city.”
Catholic and charter schools have been conducting in-person classes since the fall, and the district has met or exceeded their standards, she said, adding that for three weeks, CPS brought pre-K and special ed students back safely.
“We need a renewed sense of urgency on the part of CTU leadership,” Lightfoot said.
CTU leaders said Sunday night they were disappointed.
“It’s been a frustrating process,” Sharkey said. “Today wasn’t really an exception. We spent the whole day at a Zoom bargaining table, but we’re at the phase of negotiations where we have really some hard issues left.”
Sharkey said a few remaining issues include remote working accommodations for workers who live with others who may be vulnerable to COVID-19, a vaccination plan for those returning to work and a metrics system for when schools would potentially close again.
“If there’s a will, there’s a way,” Sharkey said. “I think if they get creative and are willing to make compromises, this is something that could be solved. But right now we’re not seeing the compromises at the table that we would need in order to get agreements on what we think are just a handful of important issues.”
CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said the word “disappointing” can’t be used enough.
“This discussion is not about if we return but how we return,” Gates said. “And how we return is with the maximum amount of safety that we can obtain in an agreement.
“We have to pull together in times of crisis,” Gates said. “And if a pandemic that is disproportionately killing Black people, that is disproportionately affecting Latinx people, the very people who depend on the Chicago Public Schools, then what crisis will it take to get us to work together? Today we sat with ourselves at a Zoom because we were told that concessions had to be major.”
Lightfoot said the district had been waiting all day for negotiations to begin, but CTU didn’t return to the table.
Chief Education Officer LaTanya McDade clarified that their side never logged into Zoom because they were waiting for CTU to review proposals: “It didn’t happen not because we refused to join, but because CTU was not ready.”
Both Lightfoot and Sharkey said their conversation on Sunday was cordial.
Some people are trying to “stir and foment chaos and dissent” by characterizing it otherwise, Lightfoot said.
Jackson said the union “has stood in the way” of a safe and sensible reopening.
“Tomorrow will be the fourth consecutive day where teachers have been directed to remain home, and that makes 15 days in the past year and a half where CTU leadership has disrupted student learning,” Jackson said. “No one should be OK with that.”
Jackson said she’s incredibly frustrated, not just as the leader of this school system but “as a parent.”
Earlier Sunday, in two nationally televised appearances, Jackson talked about the divisions.
“Our goal is to open up schools as planned,” Jackson said Sunday morning on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “The goal right now is to get a resolution. CTU has made it clear that they want a deal, and we share the same sentiment.”
Jackson said there remains discussion about coronavirus vaccinations and addressing those with concerns about returning to in-person instruction, such as staff with preexisting health conditions. Her comments on the program came after an earlier appearance on CNN’s “Inside Politics Sunday with Abby Phillip.”
Tentative agreements as of Saturday were in four areas, including health and safety protocols, ventilation, contact tracing and safety committees, according to a news release from the teachers union.
For health and safety protocols, there will be health screenings and temperature checks, access to hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes, face coverings and personal protective equipment, regular cleaning and disinfection protocols, and social distancing, the statement said.
Jackson said the district made “an extensive effort to ensure” that all classrooms used for the year will be properly ventilated, the statement said. Contact tracing efforts will also take place in coordination with the Chicago Department of Public Health.
On CNN, Jackson said schools need to reopen not only to meet the needs of parents who want to send their children back but because of all the other roles schools play in the city.
“Schools are not only a safe haven and a place for kids to get a quality education, but it also is a place where many of their needs are met. And so I think the first step is to safely reopen schools so that that resource and that hub is there for many of our communities,” she said.
Jackson also said the district has been advocating for prioritizing vaccines for teachers, but stressed that it isn’t the only factor to consider when reopening and needs to be used in conjunction with other health precautions.
“We can safely reopen schools. The vaccine will definitely take us further, which is why we’re working with our city’s health department in order to vaccinate our teachers as quickly as possible. But I just think it’s important to note that it’s an important tool but it’s not a necessary tool to reopen schools,” she said.
Phillip asked how Jackson can be assured all of the safety protocols will be followed in a district so large, to which Jackson responded, the proof is in the previous three weeks.
“First I would point to just the three weeks of success we’ve had successfully bringing back students in our cluster programs and in our pre-K programs. Teachers and principals are taking the steps extremely seriously when I go into schools to visit. And we’ve seen that happen even when COVID cases arise, people are quickly reporting, we’re able to quarantine folks, and so I believe that our teachers and principals and school-based staff will do what’s needed,” she said.
Phillip also asked Jackson what is behind the hesitancy of some families to return to in-person class and what the district is doing to convince them it’s safe.
“I think that a lot has been made around this equity question, but if we’re really serious about equity we have to address the fact that many of our African American students, in particular, are struggling in this environment,” she said.
Jackson added that families that want remote education will continue to have that option for the remainder of the school year. “But we cannot negate the fact that there are thousands of students here in CPS that aren’t logging on every day and are falling behind every day, and we’re going to have to recover from that,” she said.
Lightfoot isn’t the first Chicago mayor to have a contentious relationship with CTU. The union also went on strike during former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s tenure.
But Lightfoot has had an especially contentious relationship with the union. The CTU endorsed Lightfoot’s opponent, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, in the 2019 mayoral race and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars against her.
Since Lightfoot’s win, the union has repeatedly criticized her for failing to live up to progressive campaign promises, accusing her of campaigning one way but governing another. In turn, Lightfoot has accused the union of attempting to harm her politically by propping up her critics.
CTU’s 2019 strike marked the longest since the 1980s, and ended bitterly when Lightfoot refused to allow teachers to make up all their strike days.
(Chicago Tribune’s Morgan Greene contributed to this story.)
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