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If Chicago teachers walk out, it would be ‘illegal strike,’ district warns

Educators at several Chicago schools, including Bateman Elementary, took their desks outdoors to teach remotely this week, as the union escalated efforts to push back on the city’s school reopening plan.
Educators at several Chicago schools, including Bateman Elementary, took their desks outdoors to teach remotely this week, as the union escalated efforts to push back on the city’s school reopening plan.
Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat Chicago

In a letter to teachers, Chicago Public Schools warned that refusing to report to school buildings next week would constitute an “illegal strike” and insisted that an agreement with the teachers union is “within reach.”

Teachers have until midnight Saturday to vote on a union resolution that calls for those instructed to return to instead continue to teach remotely, despite requirements that thousands more report to school buildings as the city enters the second phase of its reopening plan.

Failure to report to campuses could disrupt learning for thousands of pre-kindergartners and special education students who returned to campuses last week. Some schools were already telling pre-kindergarten parents that support staff would be tapped to cover classrooms. Another 70,000 students in kindergarten to eighth grade will return to campuses Feb. 1, and a second wave of educators has been called in to prepare starting Monday.

“These past months, we have met with CTU leadership more than 60 times,” reads the letter, signed by Matt Lyons, the district’s chief talent officer, and sent Thursday morning. “The union’s input has in many cases strengthened our reopening plan, and we remain committed to continuing negotiations in good faith with union leadership. We are meeting every day and will continue to do so. An agreement is within reach, so long as we continue working hard together.”

A vote to not report to work Monday would constitute an “illegal strike,” Lyons wrote.

“The decision by the union to remain out of schools and deny families access to in-person school is a decision to strike,” he continued, saying district leadership was “disappointed” by the decision by the union’s House of Delegates to seek a vote from its full membership.

Union leaders agreed Thursday afternoon that a deal still could be reached, though neither the union nor the district has released a draft agreement or a timeline for such a document.

But union leaders pushed back strongly on the district’s use of the word “strike“ and who was ultimately responsible if a work stoppage happened.

“Our members didn’t vote on a strike. They (are voting) to remain in remote learning to mitigate disaster,” said Stacy Davis Gates, the union’s vice president. “The only person who can cause a stoppage is the mayor, and CPS, if they lock our members out,” referring to the district’s decision to cut off access to email and remote learning software to about 100 educators who refused to report to campuses in the first reopening wave.

Teachers will cast virtual ballots. Some took to social media Wednesday night to post “I vote yes,” while others lamented privately about the dramatic turn and expressed concern about the toll on students, families, and schools.

In the letter, Lyons expressed concern about the effect of a walkout on students who have already elected to return. The district has not yet released attendance numbers, but it originally expected about 6,000 pre-K and special education students to report to classrooms.

“This vote would cancel in-person learning for the tens of thousands of students who asked to return — and the thousands of pre-K and cluster students who are already learning safely in classrooms. Our collective bargaining agreement includes a no-strike clause, and the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board has ruled a strike of this nature would be illegal.”

Lyons wrote that public health experts have “made it clear” that a return to in-person learning is safe and necessary and said the district was fully committed to providing teachers a safe working environment.

Public health researchers and epidemiologists continue to assess the risk of reopening schools. Two new studies show that, where COVID-19 numbers are already low, schools do not seem to contribute to the virus’ spread. But pre-existing rates can increase risk with school reopening if proper precautions aren’t taken.

An attached document — called “Shared Vision for Safe Reopening” — outlined several points of agreement between union leaders and district officials, including HEPA air purifiers for classrooms, district-employed contract tracers, and cleaning and disinfection plans.

According to the document, the district is working to satisfy a union demand to establish safety committees at each individual campus as well as an eight-person districtwide body — staffed equally by Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union — that would focus on health and safety issues. But it appears the district and union have not agreed on how much authority safety committees would have, with the district’s position being that safety committees should not have the authority to temporarily close a school.

Those decisions, the document reads, “need to be made by public health officials.”

Points where the district and union leadership have not yet reached resolution, according to the document, are:

  • Union demand: Baseline testing of all staff and students before returning to buildings. CPS response: “It is not known if testing of all staff, teachers, and students at one point in time provides any additional reduction in virus transmission above the key mitigation strategies recommended for schools.”
  • Union demand: Surveillance testing of 100% of staff weekly and 25% of students at 40 schools in zip codes with the highest positivity rates. CPS response: The district said its voluntary surveillance testing program will test up to 25% of staff each week, and every staff member will be offered the opportunity to be tested each month. But currently more than 20% of staff have declined to participate in a voluntary program.
  • Union demand: Consideration of delaying reopening until every staff member has an opportunity to be vaccinated. CPS response: “Public health experts have concluded that schools can reopen safely at this time, and they have not recommended delaying reopening until vaccinations are complete. Additionally, CPS cannot mandate staff members to take the vaccine.”

Meanwhile, teachers are included in the next phase of vaccination, slated to begin Monday in the City of Chicago, and public health officials have said they are working on a plan specific for educators that would go into effect later in February. But additional details have not been released.

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