CHICAGO – Students are poised to return to Chicago Public Schools after leaders of the teachers union approved a plan with the nation's third-largest district over COVID-19 safety protocols, ending a bitter standoff that canceled classes for five days.
While school districts nationwide have faced similar concerns due to skyrocketing COVID-19 cases, the labor fight in union-friendly Chicago amplified concerns over remote learning and other pandemic issues.
The deal approved late Monday would have students back in class on Wednesday and teachers back a day earlier. It still requires approval from the union’s roughly 25,000 members, with voting scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday. Chicago Teachers Union spokesperson Ronnie Reese confirmed the goal to bring students back on Wednesday, even as the vote proceeds.
Neither side disclosed full details of the proposal Monday evening, but leaders generally said the agreement included metrics to close individual schools during outbreaks and plans to boost COVID-19 testing in the largely low-income Black and Latino school district of about 350,000 students.
“We know this has been very difficult for students and families,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said during a news conference. “Some will ask who won and who lost. No one wins when our students are out of the place where they can learn the best and where they’re safest.”
Union leaders acknowledged it wasn't a “home run” but said teachers wanted to be back in class with students.
“It was not an agreement that had everything, it’s not a perfect agreement, but it’s certainly something we can hold our heads up about, partly because it was so difficult to get,” Union President Jesse Sharkey said at a separate news conference.
The union last week called for districtwide online learning until a safety plan could be negotiated or the latest COVID-19 surge subsided. The district, which has rejected districtwide remote instruction, responded by locking teachers out of remote teaching systems two days after students returned from winter break. The union's house of delegates voted Monday evening to suspend their work action.
While there has was some progress on smaller issues such as masks, weekend negotiations on a safety plan failed to produce a deal and rhetoric about negotiations became increasingly sharp. Some principals canceled class Tuesday preemptively and warned of more closures to come.
Earlier Monday, Sharkey said the union and district remained “apart on a number of key features," and accused Lightfoot of refusing to compromise on teachers’ main priorities.
“The mayor is being relentless, but she’s being relentlessly stupid, she’s being relentlessly stubborn,” Sharkey said, referencing an earlier comment Lightfoot made about refusing to “relent” in negotiations. “She’s relentlessly refusing to seek accommodation and we’re trying to find a way to get people back in school.”
Lightfoot accused teachers of “abandoning” students and shot back at the union president.
“If I had a dollar for every time some privileged, clouted white guy called me stupid, I'd be a bazillionaire,” Lightfoot, who is Black, told WLS-TV.
By evening, she had said she was optimistic with the latest proposal, which went to union leaders for a vote.
Her first term in office has been marked by other battles with the influential union, which supported her opponent in the 2019 election, including a safety protocol fight last year and a 2019 teachers strike.
Developments in the fight, with pending complaints before a state labor board, made international headlines and attracted attention from the White House. Press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday that President Joe Biden, who has pressed for schools to stay open, remained in touch with Lightfoot and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker during negotiations.
Parents and advocacy groups also stepped up calls Monday for quicker action. Some parents on the city's West Side demanded students return immediately.
Cheri Warner, the mother of 15-year-old twins, said the sudden loss of in-person learning has taken a toll on her family.
One of her daughters has depression and anxiety, and winter is always difficult. Losing touch with her friends and teachers adds to that burden, Warner said.
The girls “missed their whole eighth grade year and it felt like they weren’t really prepared for high school,” Warner said. “They’re all trying to figure out how to catch up and it’s a really stressful situation.”
Other parents said the district needs to do more.
Angela Spencer, an organizer with the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization and a nurse, said she’s concerned about her children’s safety in schools. Spencer said their schools weren’t adequately cleaned before the pandemic and that she has “no confidence” in the district’s protocols now.
Several families represented by the conservative Liberty Justice Center in Chicago filed a lawsuit over the closures, while more than 5,000 others signed a petition urging a return to in-person instruction.
District officials, who call the union action “an illegal stoppage” had kept buildings open for student meal pickup and said schools with enough staff were allowed to open their doors to students. Some teachers showed up despite union directives; district officials estimated about 16% of teachers did so Monday.
Three schools, including Mount Greenwood Elementary, were able to offer instruction Monday, according to district officials. Parents at the largely white school on the city's southwest side expressed relief.
City officials argued that schools are safe with protocols in place. School leaders have touted a $100 million safety plan, including air purifiers in each classroom. Roughly 91% of staff are vaccinated and masks are required indoors.
Union officials argued that the safety measures fell short and the district botched testing and a database tracking infections.
This story has been corrected to show the mother of 15-year-old twins is called Cheri Warner, not Cherie.
Associated Press writers Kathleen Foody in Chicago, and Rick Callahan in Indianapolis and photojournalist Charles Rex Arbogast contributed to this report. Follow Sophia Tareen on Twitter: https://twitter.com/sophiatareen