With one month left of the fall quarter, the outcome of a labor dispute with the Chicago Teachers Union could have implications for whether Chicago Public Schools reopens for the winter.
While students and teachers continue remote learning at least through Nov. 5, an independent arbitrator on Friday ruled that CPS violated its contract with the Chicago Teachers Union by making some employees work in person under what may not have been “safe and healthful” conditions.
CTU has reported problems ranging from ventilation issues to widespread failure to enforce mask wearing and social distancing. But CPS does not agree and has indicated it will challenge the arbitrator’s ruling. If the district doesn’t succeed, it may have a harder time opening schools without making significant changes.
Asked Monday about the chances of a return to classrooms when the second quarter begins Nov. 9,, CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said, “I think what we’ve heard from the arbitrator gives us an extraordinary amount of pause. The anecdotes and the experiences of those tech coordinators, clerks and clerk assistants who have been ordered back into the buildings tell us that the uniformity that’s necessary to maintain safety is not being implemented and followed widely.”
While union leaders said their members do want to be back in classrooms, they also want to know that their schools are prepared for the coronavirus.
Two union clerks also spoke about their experiences and what they had heard from colleagues.
“Conditions in some schools are deplorable, particularly on the South and West sides,” said Sabrina Woods, a clerk at Foreman College and Career Academy. “This is a risk that CPS is asking us to take. Why does CPS feel that our lives are not important? Where is the respect for hundreds of dedicated, hardworking school clerks? Where is the planning for real safety for our students and their families once we do return to buildings?”
The arbitrator’s ruling held that clerks, assistants and others who have been reporting to school buildings during remote learning should be allowed to work from home when feasible.
District officials are challenging the ruling, saying they have worked with the Chicago Department of Public Health to make sure schools are safe.
“Chicago Public Schools has developed a comprehensive health and safety plan aligned to the strongest available public health guidance to help ensure the safety of staff who have been reporting to school buildings to support students, staff and families," CPS spokesman Michael Passman said.
“The arbitrator’s deeply flawed ruling substitutes actual public health standards for her own judgments and doesn’t find any actual deficiencies in the district’s plan or a single building where conditions are unsafe,” he said. "We will be moving to have the ruling reconsidered based on local and national public health standards and a complete assessment of the district’s efforts to protect staff.”
CPS also released a statement noting the arbitrator determined it’s appropriate for employees to report to schools for work that can’t be done remotely, which the district said affirms that schools are safe for those staff members.
The statement continued, “The arbitrator’s ruling disregards the best available public health guidance and instead substitutes standards that are out of step with the scientific community. Based on the logic utilized in the ruling, no workspace in the country would be safe at this time, which is simply not true.”
The statement claimed the ruling was also flawed because no visits to schools were conducted independently.
“The district has notified CTU of its intentions and will continue to discuss the presence of clerks and coordinators in school buildings," according to the statement.
The union is not backing down, but as for a potential strike, CTU President Jesse Sharkey said, “we don’t want to have to keep going there.”
“It’s going to be a long pandemic if every single time there is a reasonable suggestion coming from the union or, frankly, coming from the court, if the only way that we’re going to get CPS to listen to us and listen to reason is to threaten to strike and to organize our people to walk out of the buildings,” Sharkey told reporters Monday.
“It was not appropriate to go back to school in September, and yet CPS ... put us in a situation where we essentially had to set things in motion to go to our members and take a strike authorization vote," Sharkey added. “And now here we are barely two months later, in the exact same situation.”
Sharkey said the situation underscores the need for a bargaining process in which front line workers are part of the decision-making about how to run schools safely.
According to the union, CPS hasn’t conducted government-recommended hazard assessments or tested the air quality in school buildings, many of which have poor ventilation. With a cold winter approaching, classroom windows can’t be open much longer, Sharkey said.
“They have not announced what they intend to do for the second quarter, and that’s coming up,” Sharkey said. “We have to plan for instruction, but (the district hasn’t) addressed really critical issues."
The district’s statement said claims the union has made about ventilation are incorrect but did not elaborate, but did not point to specifics or provide corrected information. Officials said all schools have a centralized or decentralized ventilation system “that moves fresh air through the building.”
CPS also said it’s following all federal, state and local guidelines for air quality, adding that “a comprehensive assessment of every ventilation system in every school building is currently underway, and in-person learning will not take place in schools until that is complete.”
The communications office said the district will release those reports to the public and that, in addition to new filters being installed in every school, nonworking or deficient equipment will be fixed or replaced.
Improvements that have already been made include “utilizing natural ventilation when available” and running ventilation systems for two hours before someone is expected to arrive in a building and another two hours after everyone has left for the day.
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