Chicago Teachers, City Finally Reach Deal to Reopen Schools After Contentious Negotiations

Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union came to an agreement Monday night after four days with no form of school while the sides took swipes at each other in public and students sat home.

Few details were released about the evening agreement beyond it enabling classes to resume by Wednesday. Teachers are expected back at schools Tuesday. However, the union said the deal still requires approval from its roughly 25,000 members.

"We know this has been very difficult for students and families," Mayor Lori Lightfoot said at an evening news conference. "No one wins when students are out."

Previously, as tension between Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) rose, the union's president had some harsh words about Lightfoot's handling of the situation.

In a news conference earlier Monday, CTU President Jesse Sharkey accused the mayor of refusing to consider compromising on teachers' main priorities. He also said that negotiations were still in their infancy, as representatives for both the CTU and CPS "remain apart on a number of key features" before teachers resume in-person learning.

"The mayor is being relentless, but she's being relentlessly stupid, she's being relentlessly stubborn," Sharkey said to reporters. "She's relentlessly refusing to seek accommodation and we're trying to find a way to get people back in school."

The comment contradicts Lightfoot's continued claims that the CTU has been abandoning students by refusing to teach in-person classes. Last week, 73 percent of the CTU voted to return to remote learning due to accusations that the CPS was not doing enough to protect students and teachers during the COVID-19 surge.

In a separate statement posted on its website, the CTU proposed that the CPS implement a new screening test program for all of its schools. If implemented, students would be able to opt-out of in-person learning for COVID-19 concerns. Another proposal involved potential outbreaks in schools.

"If more than 25 percent of staff are absent due to COVID-19, individual schools would revert to temporary virtual learning," the union said. "Individual schools would also pause in-person learning when 30 percent or more of elementary school children and more than 25 percent of high school students are out with COVID-19."

Classes were canceled on Monday for a fourth day before the late-night agreement came together.

Until Cases Decline
Talks between Chicago school leaders and the teachers union resumed on January 9, 2022, amid a standoff over remote learning and other COVID-19 safety measures. Above, members of the Chicago Teachers Union and supporters stage a car caravan protest outside City Hall in the Loop on January 5, 2022. Ashlee Rezin /Chicago Sun-Times via AP

The union wanted the option to revert to remote instruction across the 350,000-student district, and most members have refused to teach in-person until there's an agreement, or the latest COVID-19 spike subsides. But Chicago leaders reject districtwide remote learning, saying it's detrimental to students and that schools are safe. Instead, Chicago opted to cancel classes two days after students returned from winter break.

Chicago shares pandemic concerns with other districts nationwide, with more reverting to remote learning as infections soar and staff members are sidelined. But the situation in union-friendly Chicago has been amplified in a labor dispute that's familiar to families in the mostly low-income Black and Latino district who saw disruptions during a similar safety protocol fight last year, a 2019 strike and a one-day work stoppage in 2016.

Cheri Warner joined other parents at a news event Monday calling for the district and teachers to focus on getting students back into classrooms. The mother of 15-year-old twins said the sudden loss of in-person learning has taken a toll on her family.

One of her daughters has depression and anxiety, and winter always is a difficult time. Losing touch with her friends and teachers just adds to that burden, Warner said.

The girls "missed their whole eighth-grade year and it felt like they weren't really prepared for high school," Warner said. "They're all trying to figure out how to catch up and it's a really stressful situation."

The tone of Lightfoot and CPS Chief Executive Officer Pedro Martinez's Sunday evening statement suggested more progress than on Saturday when, shortly after the union made its latest offer public, they said, "CTU leadership, you're not listening" and vowed not to "relent." The offer she previously rejected included teachers reporting to schools Monday to distribute laptops for remote learning to temporarily start Wednesday.

Both sides have filed complaints to a state labor board.

Union leaders have accused Lightfoot of bullying, saying that while in-person instruction is better, the pandemic has forced difficult decisions.

Update (01/10, 10:47 PM): This story was updated with a new headline and information to represent Monday night's agreement between the teachers union and Chicago schools.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

"The mayor's saying she's going to be relentless in prosecuting a case, but the mayor's not a prosecutor and I'm not a criminal being prosecuted," Sharkey said. "Our members are not people who have done anything wrong."

Attendance was down ahead of the cancellations due to students and teachers quarantining due to possible exposure and families opting to keep their children home. All buildings have remained open for meal pickup.

School leaders have touted a $100 million safety plan, which includes air purifiers in each classroom. Roughly 91 percent of staff are vaccinated and masks are required indoors.

Since the start of the academic year, some individual classrooms have temporarily switched to remote instruction when there are infections. But in rejecting a widescale return to remote learning, city health officials argue most students directed to quarantine because of possible classroom exposure don't get COVID-19. The district is piloting a "test to stay" program to cut isolation times.

The union argues that the measures fall short, especially considering the omicron-fueled surge that has upended the return to work and class. It has also criticized the district for not enrolling enough students in a testing program and an unreliable database of COVID-19 infections.

Several district families, represented by the conservative Liberty Justice Center in Chicago, filed a lawsuit in Cook County over the closures last week, while more than 5,000 others have signed a petition urging a return to in-person instruction.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey said that Mayor Lori Lightfoot was "being relentlessly stupid" in negotiations. Above, a sign is displayed on the front of the headquarters for Chicago Public Schools on January 5, 2022, in Chicago. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images