Chicago teachers union members defy school district, Mayor Lightfoot, and vote to continue remote learning

Teachers with Chicago Public Schools, the nation’s third-largest district, voted Monday to continue instructing students from home, defying district officials’ plans to return to in-person instruction

In casting their votes to continue avoiding in-person instruction, Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) members cited lingering health and safety concerns amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Chicago Sun-Times reported, a decision that President Joe Biden appeared to support.

In recent days, the paper added, public school administrators said that they would consider any refusal by teachers to return to classrooms a strike. Nevertheless, in response to Sunday’s vote, school officials rescheduled their planned reopening until Wednesday “to ensure we have the time needed to resolve our discussions without risking disruption to student learning,” according to the Sun-Times.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has also been a strong advocate for in-person learning:

The decision to defy CPS officials’ reopening plans came after months of fighting between the two organizations regarding how and when to return to classroom instruction during the pandemic. The ongoing disagreements appear likely to further disrupt primary education in the city if the union and the school district can’t come up with a resolution in the next few days.

“So what does this mean? It means the overwhelming majority of you have chosen safety,” CTU officials told members following their vote. “CPS did everything possible to divide us by instilling fear through threats of retaliation, but you still chose unity, solidarity and to collectively act as one.”

The Sun-Times reports that some 86 percent of 25,000 rank-and-file union members participated in an electronic vote held over three days, which ended on Sunday. Seventy-one percent voted to reject in-person instruction in what was seen as a very close vote for a CTU labor issue.

In 2019, for instance, 94 percent of teachers who cast a ballot voted to strike.

Jesse Sharkey, president of the CTU, noted online that he “will grant that it’s a lower percentage than we’ve had in the past. It’s a pandemic, after all.” Later, he said in a statement he thinks “an agreement is within reach, but we need a willing partner.”

Under Illinois law, three-quarters of CTU members are required to authorize a typical contract strike, as was the case in 2019. But this time, the union said a work stoppage would be in response to allegations that the CPS was engaged in unfair labor practices, meaning only a simple majority of voting union members is required to sustain it. Nevertheless, last week the CTU said it would require a 60-percent majority in order to show unity.

And even that vote was close, according to Sun-Times public schools correspondent Nader Issa.

“To put this another way, 61% of the CTU’s full membership voted to approve this resolution. The union set a 60% threshold for this vote, so this just eked — an unusually close vote for CTU labor actions,” Issa noted on Twitter.

Union officials have remained adamant that members’ refusal to return to in-person instruction is not a strike, however, since teachers are continuing to work at home, the Sun-Times reported. That said, the CPS is no longer making that option available for about half of all union members as of this week.

The union has identified these unresolved issues as sticking points to returning to in-person instruction: Teachers and staffers who live with someone who has a vulnerable medical condition who should be able to continue working from home; what public health metrics will determine when schools should be reopened or remain shuttered for individual schools and the district as a whole; how will COVID-19 vaccines factor into requiring staff to work in-person; how comprehensive district-wide coronavirus testing is for teachers, staff, and students.

For his part, Biden supported teachers in their quest to ensure safe working conditions before returning.

“I believe we should make school classrooms safe and secure,” he said. “Teachers want to work, they just want to work in a safe environment, and as safe as we can rationally make it, and we can do that.”

Asked by a reporter if teachers should “return to school,” Biden said, “we should make school classrooms safe and secure for the students, for the teachers and for the help that is in those schools maintaining those facilities.”

CPS head Janice Jackson told parents and families in an email Sunday that returning K-8 students to school would be pushed back until Wednesday as negotiations with the union continue. However, CPS still plans to reopen those schools on Feb. 1.

Jackson argued that it is unfair to continue denying students in-person instruction, especially after City Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady expressed confidence that all precautions have been met to ensure students, teachers and staff are protected.

Nevada’s Clark County School District, which covers Las Vegas, announced this week that it is reopening schools “as quickly as possible” after a surge in student suicides.

Jon Dougherty
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