Teachers in Chicago, home to the nation’s third-largest school district, are set to return to classrooms this week after striking a deal with the city on health and safety standards, capping months of tense negotiations that raised the specter of a strike during a school year that has already seen repeated disruptions.
Chicago Teachers Union officials accepted the agreement begrudgingly after concluding that they would be unlikely to extract any more concessions from the city. Nearly 70 percent of members who cast ballots endorsed accepting the agreement, less than a day after union brass had passed a vote of “no confidence” in Mayor Lori Lightfoot, D.
“Let me be clear. This plan is not what any of us deserve,” said Jesse Sharkey, president of the union. “The fact that [Chicago Public Schools] could not delay reopening a few short weeks to ramp up vaccinations and preparations in schools is a disgrace.”
In a joint statement Wednesday, Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson expressed relief that the impasse with the teachers union had been broken. “The vast majority of CPS families have been separated from their schools for nearly a year, and the ratification of our agreement ensures families have options to choose in-person learning and make a plan that is best for them,” they said.
The development comes after a tense, six-week standoff between the school district and the Chicago Teachers Union, which said the city was not doing enough to ensure the safety of educators. The city had a $3 billion backlog of facilities repairs on its aging school buildings, WBEZ reported in 2018, and teachers were concerned that poorly ventilated classrooms could encourage the coronavirus to circulate. The school system says it has spent $100 million since the spring on reopening, including to repair and restore ventilation systems.
The showdown in Chicago is the latest fight between teachers unions and school officials over how and when to reopen school buildings in the midst of a pandemic that has upended the nation’s education system, forcing an abrupt shift to remote learning last spring and radical changes to the way face-to-face instruction takes place. As in other big cities – like New York and Washington, D.C. – the battle pits school officials anxious to get children back into classrooms against teachers who said they feared for their health and safety.
On Sunday, Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson hailed the tentative agreement for striking a balance between the needs of students and families and the safety of teachers and staff members.
“Our agreement is a victory for the students and families who need more than remote learning can provide, and it guarantees staff the protections and resources needed to safely return to the classroom,” Jackson said in a news release.
The agreement prioritizes in-school staff with medically vulnerable family members for vaccinations, and it sets strict guidelines for when schools or classrooms should close.
The deal sets the stage for prekindergarten and special education students to return to school buildings Thursday. Elementary and middle school students would start in March. There is no plan to bring high school students back into buildings.
After months of failed negotiations, Chicago Public Schools decided to reopen school buildings without the teachers union on board. Prekindergarten and special education teachers were called back to classrooms on Jan. 4, but hundreds continued to work remotely. The city eventually declared many of them AWOL, began docking their pay and locked them out of their online accounts, cutting off their ability to teach students remotely.
Prekindergarten and special education students arrived back in classrooms Jan. 11, and school buildings were set to open for elementary and middle school students in February. But with rising tensions over the failure to negotiate safety measures, the school system eventually shuttered all school buildings once again.
A growing body of evidence shows that with proper precaution, the coronavirus does not spread much in public schools. But the data is extremely limited and not consistently collected, and it is unclear what happens when classes take place in schools with poor ventilation. It is also unclear if the same is true for variants of the coronavirus that appear to be more contagious. As variants have proliferated in Europe, some countries that had kept their schools open through the worst of the pandemic are now closing them.
Chicago is one of many urban school districts that have fought with teachers unions over reopening. In the nation’s capital, teachers and students returned to school buildings last week after a drawn-out fight over how and when classrooms would reopen. San Francisco, whose mayor recently sued the city school system for keeping school buildings closed, reached an agreement with the teachers union this week to bring teachers back to classrooms. Teachers in New York City threatened to strike before reaching an agreement with the school systemin the fall over testing and personal protective agreement, a battle that forced the mayor to repeatedly delay the start of school.
Many of these tensions have arisen from years of neglect of school buildings that made them unsafe even before the pandemic hit. In Philadelphia, for example, an investigation by the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Daily News found widespread problems in school buildings with asbestos, mold, rat droppings and lead paint chips. On Monday, some Philadelphia teachers were called in to school buildings for professional development, but they refused to show up because of concerns over classroom ventilation. Some also taught their virtual classes outside in 19-degree weather.
The school system has said it has spent more than $250 million on improvements, including $4 million to assess and upgrade ventilation.