The Chicago Teachers Union and Chicago Public Schools have reached an agreement to reopen schools after months of failed negotiations as teachers in the nation’s third-largest school system demanded a number of COVID-19 mitigation measures that went above and beyond what scientific evidence has supported.
In line with the union’s requests, the deal will fast-track vaccines for the school employees and create health and safety standards and committees for over 500 schools, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. Additionally, it lays out a comprehensive testing plan and pushes back most classroom re-openings until March.
Officials have argued — in line with Centers for Disease Control recommendations — that schools can be safely reopened with COVID-19 mitigation strategies, while the union had advocated for members with medically vulnerable relatives at home to receive accommodations for remote work and for teachers to only be required to return to in-person instruction upon receiving a vaccination.
“The vast majority of CPS families have been separated from their schools for nearly a year, and the ratification of our agreement ensures families have options to choose in-person learning and make a plan that is best for them,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS chief Janice Jackson said in a joint statement Wednesday morning.
“We look forward to welcoming students as they return to their classrooms in the days ahead. … Our schools are fully prepared to safely welcome back students beginning tomorrow, and we are eager to provide additional support for the families who need more than remote learning can provide,” they added.
The union’s rank-and-file teachers and support staff approved the agreement on Tuesday, with 68 percent of voting members endorsing the deal. However, while 13,681 of 20,275 votes were in favor of the deal, more than 5,000 members did not vote.
Union President Jesse Sharkey expressed dissatisfaction with the mayor’s handling of negotiations and the final agreement in a letter to members on Wednesday.
“Let me be clear. This plan is not what any of us deserve. Not us. Not our students. Not their families. The fact that CPS could not delay reopening a few short weeks to ramp up vaccinations and preparations in schools is a disgrace,” Sharkey wrote. “This agreement represents where we should have started months ago, not where this has landed. That is a stain on the record of their administration.”
“This agreement also puts us in a vastly better position than we were in November, when even after months of struggle, CPS’ ‘planning’ and ‘preparation’ would have been laughable were it not also so dangerous,” Sharkey continued.
The union’s representative governing body issued a vote of no confidence in Lightfoot and her schools leaders Monday with 90 percent approval.
Still, with a deal inked it is unclear how smoothly school reopening will go as up to 67,000 preschool through eighth grade students are set to return to school two days a week — some for the first time since March 2020.
Pre-kindergarten and cluster staff and students will return Thursday while kindergarten through fifth grade staff will return February 22, followed by students on March 1. That same day, sixth through eighth grade staff would return, with students returning one week later.
Meanwhile, 123,000 pre-K through eighth grade students have elected to continue full-time remote learning through April. Many of those students will face changes in schedules and new teachers as schools shift to hybrid learning.
In the two-week period in January that 3,000 staff members returned to schools with roughly 3,200 preschool and special education students, 87 adults and 12 students tested positive for COVID-19. A total of 14 student pods were forced to quarantine due to potential exposure at 519 schools.
However, the majority of those cases were not found to have been transmitted in schools.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky last week supported schools reopening safely, saying there is “increasing data” that students can safely return to the classroom.
A peer-reviewed study from the American Academy of Pediatrics of more than 90,000 students and staff attending school in-person at 11 school districts found that only 32 COVID-19 infections were acquired within schools and no instances of child-to-adult transmission of the virus were reported.
“Vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for safe reopening of schools,” Walensky said.
At least 2,000 vaccine doses are being made available to pre-kindergarten and special education cluster program staff this week. The city is offering an additional 1,000 vaccines this week to staff who requested permission to continue working remotely because they live with a medically vulnerable household member. Those workers will be required to return two weeks after their first dose.