Chicago lecturers, district talks in stalemate over COVID re-opening plan
© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Supporters of the Chicago Teachers Union participate in a car caravan
By Brendan O’Brien
CHICAGO (Reuters) – Talks between Chicago teachers and the mayor on a plan to reopen the third-largest U.S. school district during the pandemic was deadlocked on Friday after the union signaled that it would not accept her “last, best and final offer.”
The union representing 28,000 public school educators in the Chicago Public Schools district said Mayor Lori Lightfoot and district leaders “have walked away from the bargaining table” after submitting their latest proposal.
“We’re deeply disappointed that the mayor has chosen to stop negotiating,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said in a statement on Friday afternoon. “We are willing to work and we are willing to negotiate.”
In the statement, the teachers union said CPS’s proposal falls short on several outstanding issues, including the district’s plan to halt in-person learning district-wide only if COVID-19 outbreaks occur in half of Chicago’s public school sites at the same time.
Under such a scenario, an outbreak of cases in more than 200 schools “would not be cause to consider reinstitution of remote learning” for the district’s 335,000 students, the union said.
The union’s press release came after Lightfoot said in a separate statement that she and district officials had presented union leaders with a “last, best and final offer” on Thursday, and were awaiting a response from the teachers.
“We have yet to receive a formal response in writing today from CTU leadership. The ball is in their court,” Lightfoot and CPS CEO Janice Jackson said in a statement on Friday.
The two sides have been negotiating for months over a gradual reopening of schools, with teachers demanding stronger safety protocols to prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in classrooms.
Over the last two weeks, tensions intensified when union membership voted not to return to schools until a deal was reached. Jackson then threatened to lock out 13,000 educators from their online systems if they refused to report to work.
The union has said teachers would stop working altogether, form picket lines and strike if the district retaliated against any members who refused to teach in school buildings.
On Friday evening, in a letter to parents, Lightfoot and Jackson outlined their final offer. They said agreements were reached earlier this week on health and safety protocols, ventilation in schools, testing, contact tracing and creating health committees.
The parties remained at odds on vaccinations for teachers and infection metrics used to decide when to close schools. Another sticking point was accommodations for teachers to work remotely if they have or live with people who have medical conditions, the district said.
Their final offer also included a new proposed phased-in reopening plan. Pre-kindergarten and special education students, who have opted to take some of their classes in-person, are to report to school next Tuesday.
Lightfoot and Jackson told those students’ educators who do not have an approved or pending accommodation to report to classrooms on Monday. They warned that those who do not will be deemed absent without leave and their access to CPS systems will be terminated at the end of the day.
The district has been teaching students remotely since the pandemic forced it to close school buildings last spring.
About 62,000 elementary and middle-school students signed up to take some classes in person starting last Monday. Some 5,200 pre-kindergarten and special education students who chose the same option had been taking classes in their schools up until Jan. 26, when the district canceled in-person instruction for them because of the dispute.
The district has yet to announce when high school students will have the option to return to school.