CHICAGO (AP) — Chicago scrapped classes for five days days in a confusing standoff that ended late Monday with the teachers’ union over COVID-19 safety measures in the nation’s third-largest school district.
From remote instruction to testing, both sides have been negotiating nearly a dozen complex points of a safety plan that loomed over students’ return from winter break. The fight came as other districts have had to increasingly shift online amid soaring COVID-19 cases.
Leaders on both sides described the tentative agreement, which requires a full union vote, in general terms, but did not offer specific details.
The issue that caused the most chaos in the roughly 350,000-student district was when and how to revert to remote learning.
The Chicago Teachers Union wanted the ability to switch to districtwide remote instruction and offered a lower bar for closing individual schools. Initially, they proposed metrics similar to last year’s safety agreement, which expired before the school year and remained under negotiation.
School leaders flat out opposed any districtwide return online, so much that they opted to cancel classes rather than allow it temporarily as the union argued was necessary amid the spike. Chicago Public Schools leaders said the pandemic is different now compared to a year ago with availability of vaccines and roughly 91% of staff vaccinated. School officials also said remote learning is detrimental to students.
Two days after students returned from winter break, the union voted to return to remote instruction on its own and most union members stayed out of schools, saying they would return when there’s a deal or the latest surge of infections subsided. The district responded by locking them out of teaching platforms allowing them to teach remotely and canceling class.
During this year, individual classes have temporarily gone remote during smaller outbreaks.
The tentative agreement did not include a provision for districtwide closures, but both sides agreed to metrics to shut down individual schools, depending on many students and staff were absent related to COVID-19.
The union wanted to expand COVID testing districtwide, requiring tests unless families opt out with the goal of randomly testing at least 10% of the student and staff population weekly. The union has blasted the district for being slow to roll out school testing and botching a holiday testing program, in which issues with mailing tests back to the district ultimately made thousands of samples invalid.
Under the tentative agreement, the district will expand testing, but rejected the opt-out system. Earlier on, Mayor Lori Lightfoot had said testing was a “quasi-medical procedure” and cited liability issues.
Families have been hesitant to enroll in the existing district program, which requires consent for guided weekly nasal swabs. In October, only about 7% of students had signed up. The number has slowly increased, but under the proposal the district and union committed to increasing participation.
Over the weekend, the district did secure about 350,000 antigen tests from the state of Illinois, but district leaders haven’t spelled out how they will be used.
The COVID-19 safety fight in union-friendly Chicago is the latest extension of the contentious relationship between Lightfoot and the union. The CTU backed Lightfoot’s opponent in the 2019 election and went on an 11-day strike later that year.
Both sides have filed complaints with a state labor board over unfair practices and the rhetoric outside of the bargaining table became increasingly sharp.
Union President Jesse Sharkey called Lightfoot “relentlessly stupid” in her response to school closures, while the mayor accused teachers of an “illegal walkout,” saying they’ve “abandoned kids.”
The district has refused to pay teachers who don’t show up.
During negotiations, the union asked that no members be disciplined or docked pay and wanted an outside party to resolve disputes. The district did not offer any assurances that pay would be restored.
Over the past two weeks, both sides publicized areas of agreement.
The district purchased KN95 masks for students and teachers, agreed to bring back daily COVID-19 screening questions for anyone entering schools, and added more incentives to increase the number of substitute teachers. Also, teachers will be able to take unpaid leave related to the pandemic, either for their own illness or increased risk.
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