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Deal that would reopen Chicago schools clears key hurdle. Now teachers decide.

Signs posted outside a Chicago elementary school ask all who enter to wear a face mask.
Signs posted outside a Chicago elementary school ask all who enter to wear a face mask.
Mila Koumpilova / Chalkbeat Chicago

Chicago teachers will have just over 24 hours to decide whether to greenlight a tentative agreement that would pave the way for schools to reopen for in-person learning in the coming weeks.

The agreement passed the union’s House of Delegates with 85% approval Monday; 13% of delegates voted against and 2% of delegates abstained. The final step is the broader membership vote.

The vote brings Chicago one step closer to reopening schools following a protracted contract negotiations battle that put the nation’s third largest school district at the brink of a teachers strike.

But in a sign of potentially more challenges ahead for the district, delegates also issued a vote of no confidence in Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the leadership of Chicago Public Schools. That measure passed by 90%

The House of Delegates acts as a proxy for the larger group of members. Each member was expected to vote Monday in response to a straw poll taken at their school. In 2019, the 700-person body voted by a 60% margin to end an 11-day teachers strike just months into Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s term. Teachers went on to ratify that five-year contract by an even larger margin of about 80%.

In this vote, 526 delegates voted in favor of the measure, 82 voted against and 12 abstained. Union leadership did not make a recommendation for how members should vote, as they have done in other instances.

If union members accept the latest offer, students in prekindergarten and some special education classes — and their teachers — would return Thursday. Teachers for kindergarten through fifth grade would return Feb. 22, with students returning March 1. Teachers for sixth through eighth grade would return March 1, with students following on March 8.

If they don’t accept, the proposed agreement would send both sides back to the negotiating table. But after weeks of ultimatums and harsh words, it’s not clear what additional concessions educators could win — some say they would like to have both shots of the vaccine before returning or stricter metrics to determine districtwide closure.

The offer that teachers will consider in the coming days sets a vaccination schedule that would prioritize teachers, despite some health officials’ concerns about ensuring enough supply for other essential workers who have been working since the pandemic began. Priority would go to union members who must report to school buildings first, along with members who are already in person. It would also move union members who are older or in high-risk categories to the front of the line for vaccinations, as well as employees who live in the 10 zip codes with the highest COVID-19 positivity rates.

It also promises that 2,000 expedited vaccines will be offered this week to teachers and in-person staff who work with returning pre-K and special education students, and union members who live with high-risk family members.

While many educators say they are relieved that schools are on track to reopen with an agreement, the tense nature of the negotiations has left many teachers unsure whether they’ll vote in favor of the deal.

At Bateman Elementary in Albany Park, union delegate Adam Geisler spent Monday afternoon taking a straw poll of educators in his building to decide how he would vote on the question of whether to send the tentative agreement to members to review.

He said some teachers in his building, particularly pre-K and special education staff who returned in the first wave of staff in January without the supports now spelled out in the agreement, feel left behind by the district. “They were kind of broken off from the rest of the bargaining unit,” said Geisler, who teaches fifth grade social studies and would be in line to return Feb. 22. “There are some wounds that need healing.”

Theresa Toro, a school social worker at Richardson Middle School, voted Monday on behalf of a group of social workers she leads as a delegate. Her vote ultimately reflected what her fellow social workers wanted, but Toro said before the vote that, personally, she was inclined to say no. She said the deal offered few concrete solutions for the specific demands of clinicians, many of whom work with students in several pods and would be in the school building five days a week.

Since not all rooms have adequate ventilation, “clinicians are being placed in hallways,” Toro said. “Always feeling like you have to fight just to have a decent place to work — you get so tired of that.”

On Monday, some delegate meetings were unfolding as news came that Chicago labor leader Karen Lewis had died. Lewis steered a sea change within public education organizing before stepping down as president of the teachers union in 2018.

“Karen taught us how to fight, and she taught us how to love,” a statement from the Chicago Teachers Union said. “Before her, there was no sea of red — a sea that now stretches across our nation.”

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