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Chicago Public Schools, Teachers Union Reach Tentative Agreement to Reopen, Mayor Says

Supporters of the Chicago Teachers Union protest as negotiations with Chicago Public Schools continue over a coronavirus safety plan agreement in Chicago, Ill., January 30, 2021. (Eileen T. Meslar/Reuters)

Chicago officials have reached a tentative agreement with the Chicago Teachers Union, according to Mayor Lori Lightfoot, meaning some students may return to in-person learning over the next several weeks.

The plan has yet to be ratified by the CTU’s house of delegates, officials said in a news conference Sunday. Before the announcement, the union said it did “not yet have an agreement” with city officials and it would continue talks with its rank-and-file members throughout Sunday. 

We are here to announce the very good news that our children will be returning to in-person learning this week,” Lightfoot said on Sunday. 

“This agreement was about making sure everyone in our school communities just aren’t safe, but also that they feel safe,” Lightfoot said, “And feel that their lived experiences and fears and frustrations have been heard.”

School and city officials have clashed with the teachers union in recent weeks over reopening classrooms: Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson last week ordered all teachers who don’t have permission to stay home due to medical concerns to come back to the classroom, while CTU instructed teachers to remain remote to stay safe during the coronavirus.

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. CTU is also pushing for increased testing of staff and students as well as a public health metric that would determine when schools should reopen or close.

After the news conference, CTU said: “There is no agreement yet between the Union and the Board of Education. What we have is a framework that all of our members must first review and assess, because it is our members who are being asked to return to school buildings in the midst of a global pandemic.”

Jackson said a phased return to in-person learning would start this week contingent upon the ratification of the agreement.

Students in pre-K and cluster programs would return Thursday, while K-8th grade teachers and students would return in phases over the coming weeks, according to the proposed agreement.

Kindergarten through fifth grade staff would return on February 22, Jackson said, with students returning one week later on March 1. That same day, sixth through eighth grade staff would return, with students returning one week later.

The schools will implement traditional COVID mitigation strategies and will also offer vaccinations to staff living in medically vulnerable homes beginning this week, Jackson said. The school district hopes to vaccinate 1,500 CPS employees each week at its own vaccination sites.

Lightfoot pushed back against a reporter asking if she was speaking too soon, in terms of announcing the agreement before it is ratified.

“We understand the house of delegates has the right to say yes or say no,” she said. But officials wanted to give parents a preview of the plan, “with the caveat that it is subject to ratification” by the union’s delegates, she said.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky last week supported schools reopening safely, saying there is “increasing data” that students can safely return to the classroom.

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.

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