Morton High School District teachers file unfair labor practice charge over return to in-person teaching

Charles J. Johnson, Chicago Tribune
·3 min read

Teachers from west suburban Morton High School District 201 have filed an unfair labor practice charge against the district, alleging they are being forced back into in-person instruction without appropriate consideration for their health and safety as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on.

Filed the day before hybrid instruction resumed Tuesday at the schools in Berwyn and Cicero, the charge alleges District 201 has failed to bargain with the union over pandemic health and safety issues as required by law. The district has two main high schools, Morton East in Cicero and Morton West in Berwyn, with three other specialized schools.

“By unnecessarily returning students to the buildings, the district is increasing the health risks for teachers and students, their families, and their communities, many of which have high populations of Black and brown residents who have already been hit hard by the pandemic,” the union said in a statement.

District 201 said it has bargained in good faith with the teachers union and has implemented appropriate health and safety protocols, including providing personal protective equipment, disinfecting the school, creating procedures for those who show symptoms of illness and increasing ventilation in the building.

The district said it’s “excited” that 20% of the student body decided to return Tuesday to in-person learning as part of a hybrid model of remote and in-person teaching.

“The district looks forward to continuing to educate all of our students in the best way possible that meets every student’s needs in a safe manner for everyone,” officials said. “Happy to say there were a lot of excited students and teachers this morning.”

The district serves about 8,000 students in Cicero as well as Berwyn, Lyons and other Cook County suburbs, a number of which have been hit hard by the pandemic.

In a news release Tuesday morning, the union noted the 14-day rolling positivity rate for the Berwyn-Cicero area was 9.2%, above Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and higher than the statewide rate. The school noted the seven-day rate was lower, at 7.65%, according to the same Northwestern COVID-19 data dashboard cited by the union.

The union said it is waiting for a response from the district to the labor practice charge, though the district said it has yet to receive the complaint and would not comment on its contents. The union said it filed the charge late Monday.

In a copy of the charge provided to the Tribune, the union asks the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board to force the district to return to the table and bargain further over a return to “blended” or hybrid learning.

“We want to continue to bargain to agreement so we can feel safe and healthy in our working environment,” said union President Anthony LaCivita, a history teacher. “We’d like nothing better than to see our kids coming into the classroom. We understand that’s the best way to learn. We want to do it safely.”

Most teachers have been teaching remotely from their classrooms since August, LaCivita said.

Because of a no-strike clause in their collective bargaining agreement, LaCivita said a strike is not currently an option for Morton teachers.

The union fight between teachers and administrators parallels a larger one happening between the Chicago Teachers Union and Chicago Public Schools, which has gained national media attention. CPS is threatening to lock teachers out of remote instruction if they do not return to work during the pandemic, at which point the union could go on strike.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has taken to cable news in recent days to discuss the ongoing battle, on Tuesday, in part, blaming former President Donald Trump for a shaky vaccine rollout that if handled differently might have made the return process faster.

charjohnson@chicagotribune.com