Chicago schools are poised to resume classes this week after Chicago Teachers Union leaders approved a plan with the district on distance learning and other COVID-19 safety protocols late Monday.
CHICAGO (AP) — Students are poised to return to Chicago Public Schools after teachers’ union leaders approved a plan with the country’s third-largest district on COVID-19 safety protocols late Monday, enabling a ended a bitter deadlock in which classes were canceled for five days.
As school districts across the country have faced similar concerns amid skyrocketing COVID-19 cases, labor struggles in union-friendly Chicago have heightened concerns about distance learning and other pandemic issues.
The deal, which would have students in class on Wednesday and teachers the day before, has yet to be approved by a vote of the roughly 25,000 union members. The issues on the table were measures to close schools during outbreaks and more extensive COVID-19 testing.
Neither side immediately released full details of the proposal Monday night, but the district informed parents in the largely impoverished black and Latino school district of about 350,000 students that classes would resume Wednesday.
“We know this has been very difficult for students and families,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said at an evening news conference. “Nobody wins when students don’t have a place where they can learn best and where they are safest.”
At a dueling press conference, union leaders acknowledged that it was not a “home run,” but that teachers wanted to be back in the classroom with students.
The Chicago Teachers Union House of Representatives voted Monday night to suspend their work action from last week, calling for district-wide online learning until a safety plan was negotiated or the latest wave of COVID-19 subsided. The district, which has rejected distance education across the district, responded by keeping teachers at a distance from access to education systems two days after the students returned from winter break.
While some progress has been made on smaller issues such as masks, negotiations over a security plan over the weekend failed to reach a deal and rhetoric over the negotiations became increasingly sharp. Some principals preemptively canceled class Tuesday and warned of further closures throughout the week.
Earlier Monday, union president Jesse Sharkey said the union and the district “have kept apart on a number of key issues, accusing Lightfoot of refusing to compromise on teachers’ key priorities.
“The mayor is ruthless, but she’s ruthlessly stupid, she’s ruthlessly stubborn,” Sharkey said, responding to a comment the former prosecutor’s mayor made about refusing to “allow in” during negotiations. “She ruthlessly refuses to look for housing and we are trying to find a way to get people back into school.”
Lightfoot accused teachers of “abandoning” students and fired back at the union president.
“If I got a dollar for every time a privileged, privileged white man called me stupid, I’d be a bazillionaire,” Lightfoot, who is black, told WLS-TV.
By evening she had said she was optimistic about the latest proposal, which went to the union leaders for a vote.
Her first term in office was marked by other battles with the influential union, which supported her opponent in the 2019 elections, including a battle with security protocol last year and a teachers’ strike in 2019.
The developments in the battle, with complaints pending before a state employment agency, made international headlines and caught the attention of the White House. Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Monday that President Joe Biden, who has pushed for schools to remain open, has kept in touch with Lightfoot and Illinois Governor JB Pritzker during the negotiations.
Parents and advocacy groups also called for faster action on Monday.
A group of parents on the west side of town — near the intersection of largely black and Hispanic neighborhoods — demanded the students return immediately.
Cheri Warner, the mother of 15-year-old twins, said the sudden loss of personal learning has taken a toll on her family.
One of her daughters has depression and anxiety, and winter is always hard. Losing contact with her friends and teachers adds to that burden, Warner said.
The girls “missed their entire year of eighth grade and 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 very stressful situation.”
Other parents said the neighborhood should do more.
Angela Spencer, an organizer with the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization and a nurse, said she is concerned about the safety of her two children in schools. Spencer said her children’s schools had not been adequately cleaned before the pandemic and she now has “no confidence” in the district’s protocols.
Several families, represented by Chicago’s conservative Liberty Justice Center, have filed a lawsuit in Cook County over the closures, while more than 5,000 others signed a petition urging return to personal instruction.
District officials, calling the union move “an illegal shutdown,” had held buildings open for student meals and said schools with sufficient staff could open their doors to students. Some teachers showed up despite union guidelines; district officials estimate that about 16% of teachers did so on Monday.
According to district officials, three schools, including Mount Greenwood Elementary, were able to offer education on Monday. Parents of the mostly white school on the southwest side of town expressed relief.
City officials argued that schools are safe with protocols. School leaders have touted a $100 million safety plan that includes air purifiers in every classroom. About 91% of staff are vaccinated and masks are mandatory indoors.
Union officials have argued that security measures are inadequate and that the district has messed up tests and an infection-tracking database.
In recent days there have been small signs of agreement.
The district has purchased KN95 masks for students and teachers, agreed to bring back daily COVID-19 screening questions for everyone who attends school, and added more incentives for substitute teachers.
This story has been corrected to show that the mother of 15-year-old twins is named 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
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