January 25, 2022

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Chicago mayor rejects union’s proposal for schools to go remote next week

CHICAGO — The Chicago Teachers Union unveiled a new proposal Saturday that would have remote learning start Wednesday districtwide if school officials agree to a set of additional COVID-19 safety protocols.

But even before the union’s announcement was complete, Mayor Lori Lightfoot shot down the idea.

Under the latest offer, CTU members would return to classrooms starting Monday — not for formal classes but to distribute laptops and help students sign up for a weekly, school-based COVID-19 testing program. Remote learning would begin Wednesday with in-person classes slated to return Jan. 18, if case numbers hold right.

Scores of Chicago Public Schools staff and students are already absent from in-person classes because they have COVID-19 or are quarantining because of possible exposure. But Lightfoot, CPS and public health officials have repeatedly opposed a wholesale return to remote learning during the standoff that so far as resulted in three days of canceled classes.

“CTU leadership, you’re not listening. The best, safest place for kids to be is in school. Students need to be back in person as soon as possible,” read a statement from Lightfoot and CPS CEO Pedro Martinez Saturday. “That’s what parents want. That’s what the science supports. We will not relent.”

But at a news conference Saturday at which civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson also appeared, CTU President Jesse Sharkey argued that the new offer “would solve all the outstanding issues, would give parents the clarity that we will begin instruction next week and begin in-person instruction on the 18th.”

“We’re not talking about a long, indefinite period where schools are remote,” Sharkey said, but a temporary measure while “we’re dealing with the high point of a surge.”

He contended that “what the mayor is basically offering instead is no instruction at all. … This impasse is hurting students.”

As of Thursday, the union had demanded a negative PCR test for students to return to class, but the new proposal would scrap that requirement for a plan in which 10% of a school’s population would be tested at random each week, plus those who already opted for the voluntary weekly testing program.

The metrics to switch a school to remote learning would be 20% or more of a school’s CTU staff isolating or quarantining because of COVID-19, or 25% if there are fewer than 100 employees at the school.

Schools would also be shut down for in-person learning for elementary schools if 30% of homerooms have more than 30% students isolating, and high schools and middle school programs if more than 25% of the student body are isolating.

Another new proposal is demanding a greater substitute teacher stipend of $1,000 compared to the normal $420 monthly stipend.

The union also continues to call for regular mask distribution and reinstating the health screener.

“Despite the fact that school districts across the state and nation are taking an opt-out approach to COVID-19 testing, Mayor Lightfoot has called the COVID-19 nasal swab test an ‘invasive medical procedure,’” the union said, adding that under its proposal, students could still opt out of screening.

Jennifer Johnson, the CTU’s chief of staff, said union members want students back in school but they also want additional safety measures. CTU would also like all staff to provide a negative COVID-19 test in the coming week, she said, adding union members are willing to participate in contact tracing on a school building level.

“We’re really looking for collaboration here,” she said.

If negotiators at CPS are willing to reach an agreement, the CTU’s governing body then has to approve it before the rank-and-file members vote. If no agreement with CPS is reached, members would continue to stay home until Jan. 18 with hopes they could teach their classes remotely.

Martinez has signaled he favors testing 10% of unvaccinated people in schools each week plus those who voluntarily sign-ups, though parental consent would be required for any testing. But on other issues, the district and union are further apart.

For one, they have differing proposed metrics on when a school should shut down and go remote. CTU wants that to happen when 20% of the staff is in isolation or quarantine, while CPS says 40%. Martinez also said there can be no districtwide metric to shut down in-person learning for all schools, as there was during the previous reopening agreement last school year.

The union also expressed disappointment after it was revealed the Gov. J.B. Pritzker administration within the past several months offered to help the Chicago Public Schools with vaccination clinics, testing and more masks, according to the governor’s office. But city officials have not taken him up on the offer of help, his office said.

In response, CPS said in a statement that the district receives federal funding for school testing and that the state’s testing resources are for school districts outside Chicago. “We would welcome any additional testing resources,” the city added.

The update on the CPS impasse comes as the district reports 1,025 new student COVID-19 cases and 939 new staff cases from Monday to Thursday, a record for both groups.

Despite the numbers, Chicago’s public health commissioner, Dr. Allison Arwady, has insisted that schools with proper mitigation are the safest place for children.

Jackson said at the union news conference Saturday that he appreciates Lightfoot’s point that students are better off in schools but “on the other hand, teachers want safe working condition.”

Jackson also said he wanted to see the CTU and school officials sit down in person and come up with a plan.

“I’m surprised they’re not meeting right now. … We don’t have time to wait,” he said. “My job is to try to get them back at the table … not communicate on Zoom.”

Sharkey said this proposal provides a solution and comprehensive solution that has an exact date to return to in-person instruction.

He added that whether in-person learning being better than remote is beside the point, comparing the situation to a when a blizzard shuts down school because it’s too dangerous for students and staff to get there. Whereas in the past school had to be canceled altogether, now remote learning is an option.


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