Thousands of Chicago teachers not heading back to classrooms following union vote, will remain remote
Thousands of Chicago’s educators are refusing to head back into schools Monday as originally planned, following a weekend vote from its teachers union to defy a district order asking them to return to the classroom in preparation for resuming in-person learning.
Chicago Public Schools, which is the nation's third-largest district, wanted roughly 10,000 kindergarten through eighth-grade teachers and other staffers to return to school this morning to get ready to welcome back roughly 70,000 students for part-time in-school classes starting Feb. 1. But now, following the vote, the district has pushed back the expected return date for their staff to Wednesday in hopes of securing an agreement with the Chicago Teachers Union over their concerns about the spread of the coronavirus.
"The scheduled return date for students in grades K-8 remains Monday, Feb. 1, and it is our goal to reach an agreement with CTU as soon as possible to ensure tens of thousands of additional students have the opportunity safely return to our classrooms," Chicago Public Schools said Sunday in a message to families.
"Students in over 130 private and parochial schools and over 2,000 early learning centers across the city have been safely learning in their classrooms since the fall, and we must provide that same option to our families who, through no fault of their own, have been unable to make remote learning work for their children," it added. "We’ve seen grades, attendance, and enrollment drop significantly for many of our students in recent months, and the impact has been felt most by our Black and Latinx students."
The statement also said Chicago Public Schools agreed to a request from the union to delay the return of K-8 teachers to Wednesday – but union officials called that "inaccurate" and accused the district of "seeking to sow dissent and disrupt collective Union action."
"CPS unilaterally made the decision to move the return date for K-8 teachers back to Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021," the Chicago Teachers Union wrote in its own statement. "The Union currently has no agreement with the district on any terms."
"The overwhelming majority of our members have chosen safety, unity and solidarity, and an agreement is within reach, but we need a willing partner," added CTU President Jesse Sharkey.
The CTU says it is demanding a "responsible health metric built on CDC guidelines, committees to enforce safety standards, voluntary staff return as workers can access vaccines, and rigorous testing for students and staff to mitigate any possible outbreaks."
"There’s no doubt we all want to return to in-person instruction. The issue is CPS’ current unpreparedness for a return to in-person instruction, and the clear and present danger that poses to the health of our families and school communities," the union said in a separate statement.
The district's safety plan includes thousands of air purifiers, more cleaning and a voluntary testing program.
The roughly 355,000-student district, which turned to full-time online instruction last March because of the pandemic, has gradually welcomed students back to its facilities. Thousands of pre-kindergarten and special education classes resumed in-person learning earlier this month and teachers who didn't return to their classrooms were punished.
But the union has also argued that schools don't need to be fully staffed with lower-than-expected attendance.
CPS data showed that about 19% of students who were eligible for pre-K and special education in-person learning earlier this month attended. That figure was even lower than a December survey that showed roughly 6,500 of nearly 17,000 eligible preschool and special education students were interested.
The union’s collective bargaining agreement, which was approved after a 2019 strike, prohibits its roughly 25,000 members from striking and bars district officials from locking them out. District officials have said the union vote to disobey the order to return to schools on Monday would violate the contract.
Union officials, though, say returning to in-person instruction before its members are vaccinated and without other safeguards in place would put them at greater risk of contracting the virus. They argue that if the district tries to punish teachers for staying home Monday, then the district would be responsible for a work stoppage.
Illinois on Monday is scheduled start the next phase of its vaccination plan, which expands eligibility to teachers and people ages 65 and older. The district on Friday said it would begin vaccinating teachers and staff starting in mid-February and that the process would take months.
The Chicago vote comes at a time of great uncertainty in the U.S. about how and when schools should resume in-person instruction.
President Biden has pledged to have a majority of schools reopened within his first 100 days in office. He is promising new federal guidelines on school opening decisions, and a "large-scale" Education Department effort to identify and share the best ways to teach during a pandemic.
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