Chicago Teachers Union prepares for possible walkout Wednesday over reopening plans; high school staffs would refuse to work in person

Chicago Teachers Union prepares for possible walkout Wednesday over reopening plans; high school staffs would refuse to work in person
Hannah Leone, Chicago Tribune
·7 min read

Chicago Teachers Union members could refuse to report to high schools starting Wednesday if they still don’t have a deal with the school district for reopening high schools.

Chicago Public Schools has identified April 19 as the target date to reopen high schools and required high school employees to begin working in person Monday. High school students in general education programs are the last group left to resume in-person learning but, once again, conflict between CPS and CTU is causing uncertainty about when that will happen.

After the union last week called for a one-week delay of the high school reopening, district and city officials indicated they had no intention of pushing the date.

In an emergency meeting Sunday, the CTU’s 700-member elected House of Delegates voted that that all members assigned to high schools would work remotely starting Wednesday unless there is “adequate movement” at the bargaining table.

A day later, progress appeared insufficient.

“It’s classic CTU-CPS bargaining,” union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates told members in a video update after negotiations Monday afternoon. ”They told us what they can’t do.”

But she said the union is continuing to advocate for an agreement. “We are pushing for our demands to be met. We are going to remain hopeful the table will loosen up and they will meet us halfway,” Davis Gates said.

CTU Chief of Staff Jennifer Johnson asked members to review bargaining charts and talk among one another about what Wednesday will look like in high schools.

“If we still need to walk out, we have to be prepared to refuse,” Johnson said.

At a news conference early Monday, two CTU members — a teacher who was diagnosed with leukemia in 2018 and a clerk who uses a wheelchair after a 2017 spinal cord injury — discussed the difficulties they’ve experienced getting work accommodations.

“I feel like I’m just another mass email, another number,” teacher Veronica Dorado said.

CTU President Jesse Sharkey noted the rising number of cases and positivity rates in the city; the lack of availability of vaccines to those 16 and over in Chicago, despite their eligibility in the rest of the state; and the fact that the majority of CPS families have not chosen in-person learning.

Sharkey said he doesn’t expect all high school students and their families to receive vaccines before high schools reopen but that CPS should make a good-faith effort by extending its four vaccine sites to students and families.

In the bargaining update to members Monday afternoon, Sharkey said four primary issues persist: high school schedules, leaves and accommodations, whether teachers have to be in person when their students are remote, and a student vaccine program.

CTU lawyer Thad Goodchild said CPS’s position is that schools couldn’t keep Pfizer vaccines, the only kind approved for ages 16 to 18, at the extreme cold temperatures necessary to preserve the doses.

“Even assuming that’s a legitimate excuse not to run vaccination clinics for age-eligible students at CPS schools, there are numerous mass vaccination sites across the city that have been offering the Pfizer vaccine,” he said, “... and there is one person in charge of CDPH and CPS and that is the mayor and she as the power to prioritize and set aside doses for CPS students and families and if that means doing it at existing mass vaccination sites that are set up to carry Pfizer already, then let’s do that, but the excuse we are getting from CPS leadership are wearing thin at this point. This would be a win for the school district, for the city, for the mayor, for the union, for everyone, and we need the city’s partnership to get it done.”

District officials have said they are working with the city health department on a plan to offer vaccines to students 16 and older, but have not yet released details.

In a statement last Wednesday, Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said that based on current data, the health department saw “no reason to delay the reopening of high schools.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS officials also stood by their target date of April 19.

“After successfully opening elementary schools earlier this year, we are eager to provide our high school students with the same opportunity for in-person learning later this month,” CPS said in a message to the community Friday evening. “While our discussions with the Chicago Teachers Union are ongoing, we remain fully committed to welcoming back all interested high school students on Monday, April 19.”

Arwady said the district’s mitigation strategies align with guidance from public health agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and do enough to make in-person learning safe.

“The school reopening plan also includes detailed requirements for when to pause in-person learning, and we have not yet reached any of those thresholds,” Arwady said. “Elementary schools reopened safely last month and surveillance testing among staff and students has not uncovered signs of concern. Based on current metrics, there is no reason to believe CPS cannot also safely reopen high schools.”

At the time, the health department emphasized that recent cases have been driven by young adults 18 to 39. Average daily cases in that age range were up to 326, and its seven-day rolling average positivity rate was 5.6%, according to the city’s COVID-19 dashboard.

Prevalence among that age range has continued to increase, to 338 average daily cases and a 6.1% positivity rate as of Thursday, the most recent data available because of the way rolling averages are calculated. The citywide positivity rate for all age groups was most recently 5.7%, up from 5.1% the prior week.

But city data also shows a rise in cases among those 17 and younger, who currently have the highest positivity rate among all age groups in the city at 7.5%, the same as one week prior. That rate has increased over each of the past few days and trended up in recent weeks, starting the month at 6.1%.

Average daily cases for the 17-and-younger group have not decreased since at least two weeks ago, and the most current count, 110, is up 47% from the prior week, according to the city’s COVID-19 dashboard. Tests performed among that age group were up 45% over the same time period.

As of Thursday, when its COVID-19 tracker was last updated with new cases, CPS had reported 1,024 adult and 103 student cases since last March, including 18 adults and 11 students last week following a week-long spring break. Most cases have been isolated, though some schools have seen multiple cases within the same week or had to ask dozens of people quarantine because of possible exposure.

Based on available data for last week, at least 19 schools reported one case, three schools reported two cases and one school reported four cases, sending a total 180 close contacts and 18 learning pods into quarantine.

Under the agreement for elementary schools, CPS would go back to remote learning for 14 days if the city’s seven-day average test positivity rate increases for seven consecutive days, the rate for all seven consecutive days is at least 15% higher than the prior week, and the current day’s positivity rate is at least 10%. The district would remain closed longer than 14 days if those three criteria remained true.

During the first month of the phased-in reopening agreement, fewer than a quarter of eligible students attended class in person at least once. Yet roughly 46% of younger students and 36% of high school students have indicated they want the option to learn at school when the next wave is allowed back.

The union’s clash with CPS over the return of high school students, and Sunday’s vote supporting a remote work action, mirror events earlier this year that preceded the reopening framework for elementary schools.

In January, CPS started requiring educators to work in person even though the district had no agreement with the union. A small number of special education and preschool students began in-person classes, only to revert to remote learning following a similar resolution by CTU delegates and subsequent vote by members to continue working remotely until the parties reached a deal.

Some educators were locked out of online teaching platforms and docked pay before the union’s vote formalized the tactic as a collective labor action and determined that if members were locked out on a large scale, they would strike.

hleone@chicagotribune.com

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