Public Schools

Chicago Teachers Vote To Reject In-Person School

Written by Mamie M. Arndt

Chicago Public Schools teachers and staff voted to refuse to return to work in person on Monday, the union said Sunday, threatening Chicago Public Schools’ reopening plans.

Soon after the CTU released the results, the school district said it was pushing back the date for elementary staff to return to schools from Monday to Wednesday to build in more time to negotiate with the union, delaying a potential showdown with the school district by two days.

The union resolution calling for the collective refusal to return to classrooms was approved by 71% of voting Chicago Teachers Unions members, the union said. Some 86% of members voted. When Chicago teachers approved a strike in 2019, some 94% of members voted in favor.

The resolution calls for staff to continue to teach remotely. Last week, Chicago Public Schools leaders said this would constitute a strike, implying they could cancel school for all 280,000 students that attend traditional Chicago public schools. But on Sunday, after the vote count was released, CPS sent an email to families saying that because negotiations were ongoing and to avoid the risk of disrupting school, the district agreed to a CTU request to have elementary school staff return on Wednesday rather than Monday. In a Tweet soon after, CTU said CPS had made that decision unilaterally.

In the email, CPS also said staff who are already in schools working with approximately 3,200 preschool and special education students are expected back on Monday. Remote learning will continue as usual for all other students, the email said.

What this does, in essence, is give the school district and CTU until Wednesday to reach a deal on reopening. As of now, the school district said it still plans to bring another 70,000 elementary students back for in-person learning on Feb. 1. Their teachers were due back this week to prepare for their return.

The school district and union are at odds over which staff should be required to deliver instruction and work with students in person. The school district granted hundreds of teachers with medical conditions accommodations to work from home, but said most other staff are needed in school buildings.

The union wants more staff to be allowed to work from home. Many staff are still nervous about going into schools, especially if they have family members at risk of a severe reaction if they contract COVID-19. In a release on Sunday, the union said the school district is still denying these accommodations.

Union leaders note that only a small percentage of parents are opting to send their children into schools so many staff are not needed. Just 19% of preschool school and special education students opted to return for the first week of in-person school.

Also, the CTU points out that people are already being vaccinated and that school staff are eligible starting Monday, though it’s expected to take months to vaccinate everyone given limited supplies. On Friday, Jackson announced the school district will be offering vaccinations in mid-February, but insisted that reopening plans move forward. On Sunday, the CTU said the district remains unwilling to phase in a staff return as they get vaccinated.

The approval of the resolution will bring to a head a months-long tug of war between the union and the school district. At the dawn of the pandemic, Chicago Public Schools leaders, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the head of the Chicago department of public health did not want to close schools.

But, just after the union held a press conference calling for schools to be closed in March, Illinois Governor JB Pritzker made the call that schools would be shut down statewide.

Then, once they were closed, city and school district officials twice insisted that they reopen for in-person learning. Both times the union fought back, even threatening to hold a strike vote. Both times, the school district delayed resumption of in-person learning.

For much of the time, the school district and the union were arguing over how much standing the union had when it came to reopening. CPS officials said that they would “talk” to union leaders about safety terms, but did not want to enter into an enforceable agreement. They also insisted, as they still insist, that the union cannot dictate whether schools are open or not.

Earlier this month, the union scored a major victory when the state legislature approved a measure that lifts limits on what it can bargain over and allows the union to seek enforceable agreements over many more issues. While the governor has not signed the measure yet, it weakens the school district’s argument that the union doesn’t have standing.

In December, Lightfoot and Jackson decided to end the in-person delays and move ahead with reopening in two waves, on Jan. 11 and Feb. 1.They say their decision is driven by data that shows students are struggling with remote learning. Absences and failure rates have skyrocketed. They say they fear a “whole generation will be lost” if they don’t get students into schools soon.

They insist that schools are safe with the mitigation measures they’ve put in place. As of December, the district says it has spent about $44 million on PPE, masks, air purifiers, cleaning and other supplies. Dr. Allison Arwady, Chicago’s public health commissioner, cites early research and experiences in Chicago Catholic schools and elsewhere that indicate that schools do not contribute to community spread. On Friday, she said that with mitigation measures in place, schools can be “the safest place in town.”

In recent days, the school district has said it wants to come up with an agreement with the union over safety issues. In fact, Jackson said the school district has met every one of the safety demands made by the union, except ones that are not recommended by the health department.

Despite that, fear and concern among staff and parents remain high, depressing the number of students returning to class and fueling the mass action planned for Monday.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.

About the author

Mamie M. Arndt