After Threatening Strike, Chicago Teachers Set “New Standard” With Safer School Reopening Plan
Hard-fought negotiations and a strike threat led to Chicago teachers reaching the “most comprehensive agreement for reopening schools” in the country, potentially setting a model for other districts nationwide.
After defying an order to return to school buildings they deemed unsafe, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has voted to approve a significantly revised plan to reopen elementary schools next month. On Tuesday, 13,681 CTU members (68% of those who participated) voted to approve the agreement, while 6,585 members voted against it.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) had attempted to unilaterally reopen K-8 schools on February 1 despite ongoing negotiations with the union over how to do so safely, leading CTU members to vote late last month to disregard that directive and continue remote instruction.
The standoff soon became a focal point in the growing national debate over sending children and teachers back into schools, demonstrating the power of unions to fight for workers’ health and safety in the midst of a pandemic that has already killed nearly 470,000 people in the United States.
As negotiations continued into the first week of February, Lightfoot accused K-8 educators of making unreasonable demands while repeatedly threatening to lock them out of online learning platforms and dock their pay if they didn’t report in-person to school buildings.
Facing the threat of a lock out, CTU promised to strike in response, and ultimately the mayor and CPS made multiple concessions.
On February 7, Lightfoot and the union’s negotiating team reached a tentative framework for reopening elementary schools, which, on Tuesday, CTU membership voted to approve. There is still no plan on when to reopen high schools, but CPS has agreed to negotiate that question with the union.
“Basic safety shouldn’t even be a negotiation, let alone a privilege — yet it is in Chicago, under this mayor,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said.
Under the new plan, in-person learning will now resume on March 1 for grades K-5 and on March 8 for grades 6-8 — a full month later than what the mayor had originally demanded.
After the union called for a health metric to determine when in-person learning might have to be suspended again, CPS agreed to shut down school buildings in the event that citywide Covid cases increase for seven consecutive days at a rate one-fifth higher than the previous week.
The district also agreed not to force educators back into school buildings until after they have had an opportunity to be fully vaccinated, with a plan to vaccinate at least 1,500 CPS employees per week.
While CPS was originally planning only limited surveillance testing, it will now test 100% of in-person employees every week at schools in neighborhoods with the highest Covid rates, and 50% of employees at schools in all other neighborhoods.
In addition, after the school district arbitrarily denied telework accommodations to as many as 85% of teachers and staff who requested them because they live with a medically vulnerable person, CPS agreed to institute clear guidelines for determining when and how such accommodations will be granted.
Finally, the agreement immediately reinstates over 100 preschool and special education teachers and staff who had been docked salary and locked out of their virtual classrooms since early January after they defied a directive to return to school buildings.
“No one sacrificed more in this struggle than our rank-and-file members who were locked out, docked pay or faced discipline, and we owe them our most profound thanks for making the impossible possible,” Sharkey said. “They made CPS finally negotiate. They delayed reopening. They cracked open the mayor’s hypocrisy.”
Lightfoot did not agree to provide backpay to the workers she locked out, something the CTU will continue pursuing through the grievance procedure. In the meantime, the union has established a GoFundMe campaign to financially support them.
While a majority of members accepted the negotiated reopening plan, the CTU made clear it does not endorse the way Lightfoot and CPS have handled the pandemic — with 90% of the union’s House of Delegates approving a rare vote of “no confidence” in the mayor and school district’s leadership.
“The work isn’t complete, and there are no victories in this moment. There is only surviving a pandemic,” the CTU tweeted.
Some of the teachers who opposed the plan said on social media that they do not believe it goes far enough on safety, nor do they believe it addresses the needs of the vast majority of CPS’s Black and Latino families who are opting to continue remote learning.
“I just voted no. I know a lot of people did amazing work to get CPS even to this point. We are talking about keeping people safe & alive. This plan does not do that. It doesn’t improve remote learning for parents either. I know that parents, teachers & students deserve better,” wrote high school teacher Dave Stieber.
“This plan is not what any of us deserve. Not us. Not our students. Not their families,” Sharkey said. “We got what we were able to take. CTU members fought hard and sacrificed for this, so we have to protect and use it.”
Though many in the union feel the plan is inadequate, education policy expert Brad Marianno told Chalkbeat Chicago that it’s the “most comprehensive agreement for reopening schools that we have seen around the country” and that it could set “a new standard for other districts.”
Teacher unions in other cities are already following the CTU’s example. Earlier this week, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers refused an order to return to school buildings, forcing the mayor to back off on reopening until an independent arbitrator reviews the situation.
The agreement in Chicago comes the same week that retired CTU President Karen Lewis passed away after a long struggle with brain cancer. Lewis was instrumental in turning the union into a vehicle for social justice, leading a successful strike in 2012 that has since inspired numerous other teachers strikes, kicking off the Red for Ed movement and introducing a new generation of workers and activists to the power of unions.
“Karen would have been so proud of our rank and file: our unity, our democracy, our determination to fight for the common good, and the solidarity at the heart of our strength,” Sharkey said.
Jeff Schuhrke is a labor historian, educator, journalist and union activist who teaches at the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies, SUNY Empire State College in New York City. He has been an In These Times contributor since 2013. Follow him on Twitter @JeffSchuhrke.