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Potential deal struck to get Chicago students back in classrooms, mayor says

Teachers union still must ratify the agreement reached after weeks of sometimes heated negotiations over the country’s third-largest school district.
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 Covid-19 safety plan agreement, in Chicago on Jan. 30, 2021.Eileen Meslar / Reuters file

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced that the city’s school system has reached a tentative agreement with the teacher’s union that would bring students back into classrooms as soon as Thursday, narrowly avoiding a lockout.

The Chicago Teachers Union and Chicago Public Schools have spent nearly eight months in talks that escalated to a heated public battle in recent weeks over reopening classrooms in the country’s third-largest school district, which serves more than 350,000 students. The teachers and the city schools have reached a deal that will have to be ratified by the union’s House of Delegates, Lightfoot said in a press conference Sunday.

"I am confident, confident that the measures that we have and will put in place will make our schools, even safer than they already are, and will be a model for other systems in Illinois and throughout the country," Lightfoot said.

Students will return to school in a staggered timeline, beginning with Pre-K students and cluster students on Thursday and ending with sixth- through eighth-grade students on March 8, according to the pending agreement. No date was set for high school students, who will continue on remote learning.

In addition, an estimated 1,500 public school employees will get access to Covid-19 vaccines per week as part of a new vaccine rollout program under the deal. Higher priority would go to employees who live with people who are vulnerable because of preexisting medical conditions.

The mayor acknowledged the stress on parents and students amid weeks of uncertainty, as well as thanking teachers for all their hard work through the pandemic.

“I know many of you have worked harder this year than you have ever worked before, because that’s what the circumstances demanded for you to manifest your love and commitment to your students,” Lightfoot said.

Sunday’s deal is a swift change from an apparent standstill just days earlier, when Lightfoot said she offered teachers her “last, best and final offer” on Thursday night. Officials previously said that teachers who were not approved for medical exceptions who failed to return would be deemed absent without leave and their access to school district systems terminated.

Though officials later walked back that assertion, some feared the threat of a lockout could trigger a teachers strike.

The Chicago Teachers Union said Friday that the city’s prior deal failed to land on a mutually agreed upon metric regarding when schools would return to remote learning. The prior deal offered by the city would continue in-person learning unless the citywide positivity rate reaches 25 percent.

According to CPS Director Dr. Janice Jackson, Sunday’s deal would return to remote learning when positivity numbers rise more than 15 percent than the previous week for seven consecutive days. The current day's positivity rate would also have to be more than 10 percent total.

A spokesman for the Chicago Teachers Union told NBC News on Sunday that union leadership was meeting with members to discuss the framework offered by the city. The union emphasized that the deal is not finalized in a series of Tweets after Lightfoot’s press conference.

“What we have is a framework that all of our members must first review and assess, because it is our members who are being asked to return to school buildings in the midst of a global pandemic,” the tweets said. “We are a democratic union.”