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Potential Chicago school lock out could trigger teachers union strike

Chicago Public Schools is requiring teachers to report to their classrooms starting Monday following weeks of contentious negotiations over safely reopening amid the pandemic.
Image: Supporters of the Chicago Teachers Union participate in a car caravan
Supporters of the Chicago Teachers Union participate in a car caravan, as negotiations with Chicago Public Schools continue over a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) safety plan agreement, on Jan. 30, 2021.Eileen T. Meslar / Reuters

Chicago Public Schools is requiring teachers to report to their classrooms starting Monday following weeks of contentious negotiations between the school district and the city's teachers union about reopening schools amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In an effort to reach an agreement with the union, Chicago Public Schools proposed a staggered timeline for teachers and students to return for in-person learning starting Tuesday with pre-K and special education students and ending on March 1 with the return of sixth to eighth-grade students.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools officials have said that teachers included in the first group who haven’t been granted special accommodations are expected to return to school buildings on Monday, adding that those who fail to return will be deemed absent without leave and their access to school district systems will be terminated.

Both Lightfoot and officials with the country's third-largest school district — with over 350,000 students in over 640 schools — have walked back from those comments several times over the past couple of weeks, but there's still a chance that they may follow through with such warnings, a move some say could potentially trigger a teacher's union strike.

"Despite making significant compromises in an effort to reach a deal with CTU leadership, we still do not have an agreement," Chicago Public Schools tweeted Friday.

Access to staff vaccinations, remote learning accommodations in case of an outbreak, and concerns over teachers potentially exposing vulnerable family members to Covid-19 are some of the key issues in which officials and the Chicago Teachers Union still disagree on as negotiations to safely reopen schools continue.

Chicago Public Schools said that while Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines state that vaccinating staff is not imperative to safely reopening schools with mitigations in place, they are planning on vaccinating 1,500 school district employees every week. In a news release Friday, the union responded saying that educators, clerks and other school district employees are already struggling to get vaccinated "under the mayor’s 'Hunger Games' system of vaccine distribution."

Chicago Public Schools "will only commit to vaccinate about 1,500 workers per week, giving no priority to staff expected to return first or those living or working in the hardest-hit communities — while refusing to increase its share of vaccine doses as City of Chicago supply increases," the union said.

Under the proposal from Chicago Public Schools, the district will revert to remote learning for at least two weeks if "the positivity rate of CPS' surveillance testing program reaches 2.5 percent or 50 percent of school are on a 14-day operational pause."

This means that Covid-19 cases "in more than 200 schools would not be cause to consider the reinstitution of remote learning in the view of the mayor or CPS leadership," the Chicago Teachers Union said.

The school district added that teachers living with medically vulnerable family members will have access to a Covid-19 vaccine starting Monday. If they choose to get the vaccine, they will be able to work from home for two weeks after getting their first dose. Those who refuse to get the vaccine while wanting to remain home, can take unpaid leave of absence with full benefits, Chicago Public Schools said.

The union said this proposal "denies remote work accommodations to 75 percent of educators with household members at high-risk for COVID-19."