Chicago schools reopening news: Teachers back a deal to begin reopening Chicago’s schools

Mayor Lori Lightfoot on the first day of the school year in September 2020. At the time, Chicago Public Schools said it hoped to reopen schools in November — a date that was ultimately delayed by a COVID-19 surge.
Stacey Rupolo/Chalkbeat

Welcome to our blog about Chicago’s school reopening. We’re tracking developments as the nation’s third largest school district reopens campuses after nearly a year of closures. Here’s the latest.

Teachers union members back deal

Wednesday, Feb. 10, 9:00 a.m. — More than two-thirds of Chicago Teachers Union members backed a tentative school reopening agreement, clearing the way for students to begin returning to classrooms Thursday. Students in most elementary grades will return to school buildings March 1. The union, which continued to criticize the document sharply, said 20,275 of more than 25,000 eligible teachers cast ballots.

Some experts believe the deal might be the most detailed, comprehensive framework for school reopening nationally, likely to serve as a template as other districts negotiate with their teachers unions.

Chicago schools chief Janice Jackson and the city’s public health commissioner, Allison Arwady, are hosting are online event for families with questions about reopening schools at 6 p.m. Wednesday at chicago.gov/live.

Clearing a key hurdle

Monday, Feb. 8, 8:00 p.m. — A city on pins and needles as a tentative deal winds its way through union membership. The death of a beloved icon in education organizing. Monday was an emotional day capped by a vote taken by the union’s House of Delegates on a tentative agreement to reopen Chicago schools.

The tentative agreement passed the union’s House of Delegates with 85% approval; 13% of delegates voted against and 2% of delegates abstained. The final step is the broader membership vote. Teachers have 24 hours to weigh in.

The House of Delegates is generally considered a proxy for wider membership, so Chicago is likely one step closer to reopening school buildings after nearly 11 months of closures.

Still, it could be a bumpy re-entry. In a sign of potentially more challenges ahead for the district, delegates also issued a vote of no confidence in Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools’ leaders. That measure passed by 90%. Read more here.

A deal is in the works

Sunday, Feb. 7, 1:45 p.m. — First there was word late morning that there was a tentative agreement. Then the union said not so fast — the city had made a late Saturday offer that “merits review.” Call it progress. What we can say for sure: Chicago Teachers Union leaders are weighing a tentative agreement with Chicago Public Schools that could end the reopening impasse in the nation’s third largest school district. Now starts two days of member meetings to make the final call.

The offer would push the city’s reopening timeline beyond what was on the table last week, among several concessions to the union. Under the tentative agreement language, prekindergarten and some special education teachers and students would return Feb. 11. Kindergarten through fifth grade teachers would return Feb. 22, with students returning March 1, and sixth through eighth grade teachers would return March 1, with students following on March 8.

Here’s more on the concessions that appear to have ended the stalemate — and what needs to happen next.

A plan, a warning, and an unknown

Friday, Feb. 5, 6:30 p.m. — Mayor Lori Lightfoot said earlier in the week that she would not be making last-minute plans over the weekend. And Friday evening, Chicago released a proposal that said it will delay reopening schools for most elementary students until later this month and more gradually phase in students by grade.

Under the proposal, educators who teach prekindergarten and special education students with moderate and complex disabilities would be expected to return Monday, with students returning Tuesday. Other grades would report to classrooms later in the month. About 1 in 3 Chicago elementary students has said they plan to return.

The district said it will take disciplinary action against teachers Monday if they do not report to classrooms, an action that the union has previously said would provoke it to strike.

The union has not agreed to the delay. Here’s where things stand.

Union gives thumbs down to city’s ‘final offer’

Friday, Feb. 5, 1:20 p.m. — The Chicago Teachers Union said it will reject the city’s latest offer, described by officials earlier in the day as the “last, best and final.”

In a message to members, union president Jesse Sharkey says the union wants more concessions on a health metric for reopening, work-from-home accommodations, and vaccines for teachers. He wrote that the mayor’s proposal would only close schools for in-person learning districtwide if there are COVID-19 outbreaks on half of Chicago Public Schools campuses at the same time — an offer that does not cut it for the union. That proposal still offers work-from-home accommodation for 25% of union members who live with somebody at an elevated risk of coronavirus complications, an issue that has been an ongoing sticking point in negotiations as the district seeks to ensure adequate staffing in reopened elementary schools.

According to union documents, the two sides have largely agreed on a weekly vaccine set-aside for teachers, but Friday’s email says the two sides are still in dispute over whether the city would guarantee increases as more supply comes through.

Other stumbling blocks include the city’s refusal to restore digital classroom access for 31 teachers who refused to work in-person, to negotiate about high school reopening and to decrease live instruction time for students, Sharkey wrote.

He struck a defiant tone, noting, “Three times in the past week, the mayor has drawn a line in the sand, and three times, our solidarity and our commitment has forced her and CPS leadership to step over that line.”

Hearing from the elected

Friday, Feb. 5, 11:00 a.m. — About a dozen elected officials from the county, city, and state joined a virtual press conference organized by the union to call on the mayor to stay the course on negotiations and not move to discipline teachers should a deal not be reached Friday.

CPS gives union ‘final offer’ as city holds breath

Friday, Feb. 5, 9 a.m. —In a joint statement this morning, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and schools chief Janice Jackson said they shared their “last, best, and final offer” to the district’s teachers union Thursday evening as the two sides try to reach an agreement about reopening elementary schools.

City leaders said they expect a response from the union Friday and they’d announce later today whether classrooms could reopen Monday.

At a press conference with Black educators this morning, Stacy Davis Gates, the union’s vice president, criticized the “best and final” language for apparently closing the door to further back-and-forth.

But she did say the union’s bargaining team has been meeting since early this morning to review the proposal. The union said Thursday evening that outstanding issues included a public health metric for reopening schools, accommodations for union members to work from home and changes to virtual instruction the union has proposed, such as reducing live instruction time and increasing preparation time for teachers. Lightfoot has said that reducing instruction time is a non-starter.

At the virtual panel the union hosted, Black educators spoke about long-standing racial disparities in the city and the ways in which those disparities have fueled public mistrust in the district’s reopening push.

They referenced the closures of schools in predominantly Black communities over the past decade, historic under-investment in Black and Latino neighborhoods and what they described as a district failure to support and retain Black teachers. (According to a Chalkbeat analysis, by 2019, Chicago had lost a quarter of its Black teaching force over a six-year period.)

“It’s very unfortunate for this institution to think we will trust them with Black lives,” said teacher Whitney Jean.

Signs again point to another no-deal day

Thursday, Feb. 4, 9:30 p.m. — The Chicago Teachers Union just sent a schedule for Friday and at the top it reads “As Black and Latinx communities continue to lag in vaccinations and core equity needs, CPS continues to reject sensible safety proposals in bargaining.”

We’re taking it as a sign there’s no deal coalescing tonight. There’s no official word yet from City Hall, which earlier in the day sent two brief statements — one midday saying the city hadn’t “heard from CTU leadership since yesterday” and an early evening one-liner that said it had received a counterproposal and was working on a response.

Of course, there still could be a midnight deal. But the union indicated late Thursday that multiple issues of dispute remained: a districtwide metric for closing schools in case of a COVID-19 surge, the number of accommodations for educators with medically vulnerable household members, and remote learning improvements.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has said she’s willing to negotiate, but when it comes to remote learning, she is not willing to shorten instructional time.

Earlier today, Lightfoot said she was losing patience with the constant delays and she wanted a deal done by tonight. Since Friday is a day off for students (teachers’ grades are due), there’s a little wiggle room, though not much, if the district wants to reopen schools next week.

‘We’ve slid backward’

Thursday, Feb. 4, 10:30 a.m. — Mayor Lori Lightfoot said negotiations with the union haven’t just stalled — they’ve “slid backward.” Within the same hour the union shared an open letter to parents that said it was prepared to “sacrifice even more” to get concessions on its safety demands, City Hall called a press conference in which the mayor said she was losing her patience with the delays. Lightfoot said the ongoing turmoil was causing “catastrophic disruption to the school system.”

“Enough is enough. Time’s up, the runway is done, we need a deal today,” she said.

City Hall said on Wednesday night that it would extend a “cooling off” period in which no disciplinary action would be taken against teachers who continued to defy district orders and teach remotely. But, the mayor stressed Thursday morning, that grace period would be off the table if negotiations failed to net a deal by this evening.

Officials offered a few new insights into what they had offered the union in the past 24 hours to help bridge the divide. On teacher vaccinations and accommodations for teachers who want to continue working remotely, the mayor described a weekly vaccine set-aside for teachers and a dedicated 2,000-vaccine supply for educators who live with high-risk individuals and have sought work-from-home accommodations.

The expectation would be that educators who receive vaccines would return to work after the first dose. “We’ve offered a very specific plan — a dedicated vaccination plan for them. That proposal has been on the table for days. We’re waiting for an answer,” Lightfoot said.

Parents of locked-out teachers join union event

Thursday, Feb. 4, 7:00 a.m. — The day started with a Chicago Teachers Union press conference with several parents of students whose prekindergarten or special education teachers were blocked from their digital classrooms because they refused to report to work in person. The district said 31 teachers and 17 paraprofessional remain absent without leave and locked out.

The union has said restoring virtual access for these members and granting them back pay is a condition for reaching a reopening agreement with the district. A virtual fundraiser for locked-out employees has raised about $80,000.

The parents called on Gov. J.B. Pritzker to sign a bill that state lawmakers passed in January that would expand the union’s bargaining powers or to press the district to reinstate the teachers.

Ana Avila, the mother of a kindergarten student in a special education “cluster” classroom at Corkery Elementary, said her son’s class has not had a teacher for two weeks, with special education classroom assistants overseeing virtual learning. She said remote learning has been hard work for teachers and parents, but her son has made a lot of progress.

“This is punishing the children the most because they are regressing,” she said.

Most of the parents said they want the district to stick with all-virtual learning for the remainder of the school year.

“What’s the point of sending them back?” Cindy Meza ,a parent at Sandoval Elementary, where she said there are no locked-out teachers. “It’s not going to be the same as before COVID.”

More time to ‘cool off’

Wednesday, Feb. 3. 9:40 p.m. — In a statement on social media, Chicago Public Schools said it planned to extend a “cooling off” period another 24 hours in hopes of reaching a deal with teachers. Again, the return to in-person schooling for an estimated 67,000 is delayed.

The district told families Wednesday evening that it would delay reopening until at least Monday. Negotiations will continue, making Thursday a remote school day. Friday was already slated to be a non-attendance day.

There were some signs of progress, according to a bargaining chart shared earlier in the evening by the Chicago Teachers Union. Chalkbeat Chicago’s Yana Kunichoff reports here on what issues appear resolved — and what areas of disagreement still dog negotiations.

Thursday is a question mark

Wednesday, Feb. 3. 7:00 p.m. — Negotiations over Chicago’s school reopening will move into Wednesday evening, according to a brief statement from city and district officials.

“Discussions continue between CPS and CTU. We will provide an update as quickly as possible later this evening,” said the uncharacteristically brief statement shared at 7 p.m. by Chicago Public Schools.

That update comes after a 48-hour “cooling off period” called by the district in the hopes of netting a deal.

While Chicago has not yet released an update about in-person learning for students on Thursday, it is increasingly unlikely that school buildings will reopen this week.

The union’s representative House of Delegates met on Wednesday night but did not make any major movement toward setting a strike date. The union is expected to hold a meeting to give an update on bargaining for members on Friday.

News on the vaccination front

Wednesday, Feb. 3. 5:00 p.m. — One crucial issue at the heart of the talks is providing coronavirus vaccinations to teachers and support staff headed back to the classroom. The Chicago Teachers Union said on Twitter Wednesday that the city’s public health department and an urgent care clinic in Lincoln Park had partnered to offer vaccines to the district’s school clerks.

The district required its clerks to begin reporting to work in-person last August, setting off a legal standoff with the union, which argued that they should be allowed to continue working from home.

“If the mayor can do this for clerks, she can do it for everyone,” the union tweeted.

Meanwhile, the district shared on Twitter a Bloomberg News article that quoted Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky saying that educators can return to schools safely without vaccines if districts take other safety measures.

The district has said it plans to open four vaccination sites in mid-February where school nurses will administer COVID-19 shots.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported this week that 3,700 district employees have been vaccinated so far.

Lingering questions about high school

Wednesday, Feb. 3. 2:30 p.m. — As Chicago waits to see if a 48-hour cooling-off period between the school district and union will pay peaceful dividends, Chalkbeat Chicago’s Mila Koumpilova writes about a missing piece in the conversation: high schools.

Chicago has made improving its high school experience a central goal, but for now, it has no high school reopening plan or target date. Officials have not broadly sought input from high school students and parents on how to make the most of what remains of this school year — and some families feel left out of the loop amid a contentious debate over reopening the district’s elementary schools. Here’s what they said.

Questions for Cardona

Tuesday, Feb. 2. 4:45 p.m. — On Wednesday, Miguel Cardona, a former teacher and principal who is President Joe Biden’s pick for U.S. Education Secretary, faces a Senate education committee confirmation hearing.

As our national desk colleague Matt Barnum reports, Cardona likely will face questions about reopening schools.

As Connecticut’s education commissioner, Cardona advocated for in-person instruction but managed to maintain strong relationships with unions. “We have to maintain the social and emotional well-being of our learners,” he said last year.

But with reopening progress stalled in cities like Chicago, expect questions about what specific actions the federal government can take to get schools open.

What could possibly come next?

Tuesday, Feb. 2, 3:54 p.m. — Officials have paused Chicago’s acrimonious reopening debate to take a 48-hour “cooling off” period and try to come to an agreement with the city’s teachers union.

An official from Chicago Public Schools said negotiations would continue Tuesday and Wednesday.

Wednesday will bring a planned House of Delegates meeting on the union side.

That’s just a coincidence — the union’s representative body meets the first Wednesday of every month — but what happens at the meeting could be a sign of where the ongoing labor dispute over school reopening in Chicago goes next.

If there’s a tentative agreement, it would likely go to delegates to review. If there’s no deal in sight, the delegates would be the ones to vote on a strike date.

And if the delegates just discuss other procedural matters — well, then we’re looking at more negotiations ahead.

Time for a “cooling off”

Monday, Feb. 1, 5:45 p.m. — Chicago school officials said Monday evening they will hit pause on their hotly debated reopening plan and take a 48 hour “cooling off period.” No additional disciplinary action will be taken against teachers — but students who chose in-person learning will face delays.

Remote learning will continue Tuesday and Wednesday. Read more here.

An emotional call with community group leaders

Monday, Feb. 1, noon — Mayor Lori Lightfoot told a group of community leaders Monday morning that City Hall has floated a proposal that would prioritize vaccinating teachers at schools in the 15 neighborhoods hit hardest by COVID-19. The areas would be determined by caseloads, hospitalizations, and other data points.

“If you (live or teach) at a school in one of those neighborhoods, you will be prioritized,” she said in the virtual meeting.

Previously, Chicago Public Schools said that it was working on a plan that would include distribution sites, but vaccine shortages mean it wouldn’t be put into place until later in February. Teachers are part of the state’s 1B, or second, priority group and began qualifying for vaccines Jan. 25, but the city has said it could take months; the teachers union is pressuring the school district to allow educators to work remotely until they’ve had an opportunity to be vaccinated.

Lightfoot said today that if all teachers moved to the front of the line, everyone else — including seniors aged 65 and over — “would have to stand down six to eight weeks. That’s not doable.”

In the sometimes emotional call, the mayor said the city is still negotiating with teachers on several issues, including staff and student testing, teacher accommodations for working at home, data thresholds that would dictate when schools open or close, and vaccination schedules. She said the city isn’t willing to negotiate on three additional issues brought by the union: a reduction of instruction time, defunding the school police program, and an affordable housing plan. (The union did not have an immediate response.)

At the end of the call, community leaders spoke on behalf of confused and distressed parents. “This is too much for us,” said one father of five, who suggested the idea of microgrants for families that have to suspend returning to their own jobs to supervise remote learning. “Parents have to have a real voice at the table.”

An anxious morning in Chicago

Monday, Feb. 1, 10:30 a.m. — It’s a Monday steeped in uncertainty and high anxiety in Chicago Public Schools: Reopening negotiations between the district and its teacher union still have not yielded an agreement. Unless the two sides strike a deal today, city leaders could make good on their pledge to lock elementary teachers who do not report to campuses out of their virtual classrooms and stop paying them. The Chicago Teachers Union has directed those educators to work from home; its members backed a resolution to go on strike if teachers are locked out for working remotely.

At least a couple of parent petitions circulated Monday morning urging the district not to cut off digital access for teachers. One of them, started by parents opposed to the district’s reopening plan, had amassed more than 1,800 signatures by mid-morning. Some families also took part in a Monday “sick-out” to, as one parent put it, “demonstrate that parents are important stakeholders and deserve a voice in this conversation.” It’s not clear how widespread this protest was.

Meanwhile, some high school students wondered how the stalemate between the district and union might disrupt their finals this week. If a strike goes into effect, classes will halt for students at all grade levels.

A day without progress

Sunday, Jan. 31, 9:00 p.m. — Chicago’s second reopening wave will be pushed at least a day as the school district and the city’s teachers’ union failed to reach an agreement over the weekend. On Sunday evening, each side accused the other of not show up for virtual bargaining and exchanged back-and-forths over social media.

With no deal, there’s no in-person schooling Monday. The school district said it planned to reopen classrooms Tuesday for prekindergarten through eighth graders and special education students, and it issued an ultimatum: Teachers must report to work Monday to get ready or be locked out of critical technology platforms — a statement that inches the city closer to a strike. More here.

A more conciliatory tone

Saturday, Jan. 30. 5:30 p.m. — In an evening statement sent just as snow began to blanket parts of Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson said that the city had reached tentative agreement with the union on four key issues: contact tracing; ventilation; health and safety protocols, such as personal protective equipment and cleaning and disinfection protocols; and school-level safety committees that will provide some oversight on safety and mitigation.

Documents shared earlier in the week by Chicago Public Schools and the union showed that the two sides had largely agreed on these issues already, but notable today is the shift in tone from the mayor.

“We are encouraged by the progress that we have made,” she said in a joint statement with Jackson this evening. “There is still significant work that needs to be done on the remaining several open issues. We must make additional, meaningful progress today and tomorrow as time is running out.”

According to an e-mail from the union to members this afternoon, the two sides have still not reached agreement on who exactly receives accommodations and why; vaccination plans; the frequency of COVID-19 testing for students and staff; or the timing of the reopening. The mayor said Friday night that she still wanted to reopen schools on Monday as part of Chicago’s second phase reopening plan, but that appears unlikely given that an agreement has not been reached and some teachers haven’t been in classrooms for months.

Earlier today, the union organized car caravans to tout its message across several neighborhoods.

Weekend starts with sharp words

Friday, Jan. 29, 10:00 p.m. — At a late evening press conference, a visibly frustrated Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Chicago would move ahead with reopening schools, even without a deal with the Chicago Teachers Union.

But how would that play out in reality? It’s hard to say. Lightfoot said negotiations would continue through the weekend. “We will stay at the table as long as it takes,” she said.

The teachers union shot back on Twitter.

“Let’s really be clear: The educators in the room were working toward an agreement,” the union tweeted. “The politician is blowing it all to pieces.”

Read more here.

A cloudy crystal ball

Friday, Jan. 29, 2:30 p.m. — Here’s what we’ve learned in a day of public appearances, roundtables, and a flurry of messages.

Where things stand

Friday, Jan. 29, 8:45 a.m. — Chalkbeat Chicago reporter Yana Kunichoff has a helpful Twitter thread this morning that breaks down the remaining stumbling blocks in negotiations between Chicago Public Schools and the teachers union:

Chicago cancels third day of in-person class; union says its demands still not met

Thursday, Jan. 28, 8:52 p.m. — Chicago canceled in-person classes for prekindergarten and special education students for the third day in a row Thursday evening as a deal with the teachers union remains out of reach. Students will continue to learn remotely on Friday.

Some parents, meanwhile, began circulating emails calling for a student sickout on Monday, which is supposed to mark the return of Chicago’s largest wave of students so far.

The union released a chart to its members tonight that shows some movement but little agreement on key bargaining issues. There are only three days until Chicago’s second wave of students is expected back in school buildings.

In response to a union request to test all in-person staff weekly, the district has proposed testing half of all staff each week, along with 25% of students in the 10 Chicago zip codes with the highest COVID-19 rates.

The district also has offered to allow 20% of staff with high-risk families to work remotely, which falls short of the union’s request for all members with high-risk family members to be granted the accommodation. The district has also offered to allow all high-risk educators to work remotely.

Pritzker won’t say if he’ll sign CTU bargaining rights bill

Thursday, Jan. 28, 5:20 p.m. — Gov. J.B. Pritzker would not say if he would sign a bill that would repeal a section of state law that limits what the Chicago Teachers Union can bargain over.

Since 1995, the state’s education labor law has prohibited the teachers union from bargaining over issues like class size, school day and year length, and more. The legislature passed the bargaining rights bill during a lame duck session as labor tensions were ramping up in Chicago over reopening classrooms.

When asked if he would sign the bill, Pritzker said during a press conference on Thursday that he’s looking into it. “I campaigned on expanding bargaining rights for teachers, Chicago is the only place in the state that doesn’t have those bargaining rights,” he said.

Pritzker said he has not made a final decision. If he does decide to sign the bill, it would put him at odds with Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who had urged legislators to make the bill effective in 2024 when the union is next up for contract negotiations. As written, the bill would go into effect immediately.

Wiggle room on the vaccine question?

Thursday, Jan. 28, 1:20 p.m. — In an interview our Chalkbeat colleague Kalyn Belsha conducted today with Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers reflected on the ongoing negotiations to reopen schools in Chicago, where she says she’s been in constant communication with union leadership.

Weingarten recently co-authored an op-ed in USA Today in which she said schools could reopen before vaccines were widely available, but strong mitigation measures needed to be in place. So what does she think about the Chicago’s union call to delay reopening schools until teachers can get vaccinated?

“The AFT position is that we need to have the mitigation tools completely in place. We need to have this testing, so that you can see asymptomatic spread and asymptomatic transmission, including good tracing. We need to have the reasonable accommodations for those who are at risk, including family members who are at risk. There has to be a plan that vaccinations should be aligned with school reopening,” she said.

“So what you’re hearing from our leaders is that they’re not getting any of these things put together, so they’re defaulting to: Then at least protect people with vaccines. … You’re hearing the fear because these other things are not in place and because they haven’t been brought into real conversations about how to create a situation where we’re going to trust that it’s safe.”

Bottom line: There may be some wiggle room.

The 72 hour countdown until Monday

Thursday, Jan. 28, 11:00 a.m. — Asked Thursday on WBEZ Reset if it’s still even a possibility that Chicago could reopen schools to a second wave of K-8 students Monday, schools chief Janice Jackson insisted it’s still a go.

“We expect students and staff to be in school on Monday,” she said when asked if likelihood had dimmed as negotiations continue and the weekend approaches.

Teachers originally were asked to report a week earlier to prepare for students. That timeline has shifted as the union has called for teachers to defy district orders and continue to work remotely.

Chicago cancels classes a second day

Wednesday, Jan. 27, 7:40 p.m. — Chicago will cancel in-person classes for prekindergarten and special education students for a second day as a deal with the teachers union remains out of reach.

The decision affects about 3,250 students who reported to classrooms within the first two weeks. Remote learning will continue.

In an email to parents, the district said it made the decision because the union has continued to direct its members to stay home. “We regret any distress this situation has caused, especially for children who have been learning happily and safely in their classrooms for the past few weeks.”

The email said the district still hopes to reopen schools Monday for a larger group of kindergarten through eighth graders, but prospects are dimming of making that a reality, since teachers have not been in school buildings for nearly a year.

New CDC analysis

Wednesday, Jan. 27, 3:00 p.m. — Among the data discussed at Wednesday’s meeting of Chicago’s Board of Education: New analysis released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found little evidence of coronavirus spread within 17 Wisconsin schools during the fall. (Since the schools didn’t conduct regular random testing, the study notes that it is “unable to rule out asymptomatic transmission within the school setting.”)

The three CDC researchers concluded in this opinion piece published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that “the preponderance of available evidence from the fall school semester has been reassuring insofar as the type of rapid spread that was frequently observed [elsewhere] has not been reported in education settings.”

CPS unveils readiness dashboard

Wednesday, Jan. 27, noon — Chicago Public Schools published a readiness dashboard intended to track school-level preparations, from whether air purifiers and face masks have been delivered to updates on the number of custodians hired.

Principals’ group proposes staggered reopening

Wednesday, Jan. 27, 11:00 a.m. — With in-person school stalled amid an ongoing labor dispute with teachers, the head of Chicago’s principals association proposed a new approach to reopening schools Wednesday: a pilot program with a staggered expansion.

Unlike teachers, principals have seen first-hand the district’s plans for reopening, and have raised serious concerns about staffing and safety, said Troy LaRaviere, who leads the Chicago Principals & Administrators Association, speaking at a morning press conference.

“Principals ... were in person before march, they were in person after March, they’ll be in person today and they’ll be in person tomorrow,” said LaRaviere.

A pilot program of 100 to 150 schools (about one-fifth of district-run campuses) would allow the district to focus its financial and staffing resources on a smaller group of schools, argued LaRaviere.

He also referenced a survey, taken earlier in January, of 377 principals and assistant principals on school reopening. Nearly half, or 48.3%, said they did not get sufficient guidance from the district on reopening. Slightly more than half said they had they did not have the staffing they needed to reopen safely.

Chicago principals and administration staff at many schools have been working in-person since March, in part to help steward the district’s widespread free meal program run out of school buildings.

Chicago cancels in-person learning

Tuesday, Jan. 26, 5:30 p.m. — It’s official: There’s no agreement between Chicago Public Schools and the teachers union — and no in-person school Wednesday for the 3,200 or so prekindergarten and special education children in Chicago’s first reopening wave.

In announcing plans to defy district orders to report to campuses, the union forced the school district to suspend in-person learning.

The move throws Chicago’s efforts to reopen schools to more students into disarray. Chalkbeat Chicago reporters Yana Kunichoff and Mila Koumpilova break down where two sides are at disagreement and what could come next here.

Union tells Chicago teachers to prepare for picket lines this week

Tuesday, Jan. 26, 1:00 p.m. — All Chicago teachers should prepare to work from home Wednesday and, if locked out of their online classrooms for refusing to go into school buildings, get ready to report to picket lines Thursday, according to a Monday night union communication to members.

“Our efforts at the bargaining table will be reinforced by the unity you’re showing through actions,” the email said.

The move comes as the clock is winding down on two extra days of negotiations between the school district and union, with few signs of an agreement in sight.

Kindergarten through eighth grade teachers were initially expected to return to school buildings Monday. The district pushed back their first day of in-person work to Wednesday to allow for more time to come to an agreement, but have yet to announce a deal.

Among the sticking points, according to a union presentation shared with members, are on what basis teachers would get accommodations for high-risk family members, the start date for a broader return of students, and a mutually agreed-upon COVID-19 metric for opening or closing schools.

Still, the union’s message was not wholly negative. They said they had seen “more movement at the bargaining table in the last few days than there was over the last few months.”

Speaking yesterday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot also struck a positive tone on negotiations, saying she was optimistic the school district and its teachers union will come to a school reopening agreement after what she described as a weekend of “very productive negotiations.”

Two takes on Joe Biden’s comments

Monday, Jan. 25, 3:30 p.m. — The ongoing dispute over school reopening in Chicago hit the national stage Monday when a reporter asked President Joe Biden whether Chicago should delay bringing teachers back until vaccines are widespread.

Biden, who has made reopening schools a core part of his agenda, said teachers should feel safe — “I believe we should make school classrooms safe and secure” — but suggested that widespread testing was the way to do that.

Chicago Public Schools and the city’s teachers union each seized on the statement. The district shared a video of Biden’s comment on Twitter with the tagline “we couldn’t agree more.” The union held an impromptu press conference thanking the president for his support.

The response shows, more than anything, that the intractable nature of the Chicago conflict is becoming a symbol of the roadblocks and complications of reopening schools in the era of COVID-19.

Meanwhile, with only 24 hours until kindergarten to eighth grade teachers are expected to report back to school buildings, neither the district or union has shared a draft agreement.

Again, differing accounts of progress in reopening talks

Monday, Jan. 25, 3:30 p.m. — Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Monday she is optimistic the school district and its teachers union will come to a school reopening agreement after what she described as a weekend of “very productive negotiations.”

Her confident posture stood in contrast with a more measured update from leaders of the Chicago Teachers Union that morning. They suggested the talks have made headway, but they said the two sides are unlikely to resolve remaining issues before Wednesday, when the district now expects educators in kindergarten through eighth grade to return to campuses. The union says the negotiations are “hemmed in” by a Feb. 1 reopening date for students in those grades, from which the district will not budge.

Roughly 61% of the union’s members voted to back collectively refusing to report to in-person work.

Lightfoot insisted the city is determined to reach an agreement.

“I have every confidence that we’ll get something done at the bargaining table,” she said. She added, “We made a lot of progress over the weekend.”

She did not offer specifics on issues the two sides might have resolved.

CTU officials said among the remaining sticking points are two of their demands: that the district allows every teacher who lives with someone at an elevated risk of COVID-19 to work from home, and that it sets a public health metric to specify when it’s safe to keep school buildings open. The two sides have disagreed over conditions such as high blood pressure, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say might lead to elevated coronavirus risk, but the data is too limited to say definitively.

Teaching assistant Shavon Coleman said her daughter has a respiratory issue and her mother has high blood pressure. But she was denied an accommodation to work from home even though all students in her classroom chose to continue working remotely.

Parent physicians warn of toll on children

Monday, Jan. 25, 9:00 a.m. — Eleven parent physicians from Coonley Elementary School have written a letter sharing their own experience with the epidemic and urging the reopening to proceed as planned.

“We will have positive cases in our school after reopening, but this does not mean the system has failed. Based on a multitude of data, the rate of cases and the rate of spread in school will be no higher than in the general population, and with strict implementation of control measures, it may even be better,” they write. “In the last 11 months, we have gained much knowledge both in hospitals and from other schools – specifically that basic measures such as masks, hand washing and social distancing work to prevent COVID transmission.”

The letter warns of the toll of prolonged remote learning on students’ mental health and academics.

“We are seeing this mental health crisis play out in their practices everyday. We see it in our own kids. Those of us contributing to this letter have kids ranging in age from PreK to high school and the problems are not limited to one age group. Children are suffering from loneliness, fear, anxiety, stress, hopelessness, depression, and behavioral issues that did not exist before this isolation. In addition, many children are struggling academically and those of us who have to go to work everyday cannot be home to help them.”

“Having kids out of school is more than just a burden. It is a short and long-term danger to our children’s mental and physical health.”

To view the letter in full, go here.

Behind the scenes, teachers sit with uncertainty

Sunday, Jan. 24, 6:00 p.m. — Uncertain what could unfold over the next two days, Chicago teachers expressed their concern and frustration in a union tele-town hall tonight, held just hours after the results of a union vote showed a slim majority of teachers rejected the district’s plan to return to school buildings.

“How can they have us come in if my doctor says it’s not safe?” asked one educator. “When will we know if we return?” asked another.

One prekindergarten teacher who has already begun reporting to her campus said she was upset that she would have to continue working in person (the district said pre-K and special education teachers who have already started reporting to school buildings should continue, even as it delayed the report-to-work date for educators in kindergarten to eighth grade.) “It doesn’t sound like solidarity if I’m still going back to what I’m going back to,” she said.

Union leaders, who had been in negotiations with the district earlier that day, said there were several ongoing sticking points in discussions: when K-8 students would return, planned right now for Feb. 1, and agreement on a reopening metric. These are among the issues Chicago school officials flagged earlier this week.

With 48 hours to go before teachers are now supposed to return to school buildings, CTU President Jesse Sharkey said union leadership wouldn’t agree to teachers walking in without an agreement. “We are going to keep bargaining,” said Sharkey. “A precondition to going back into schools is going to be an agreement. One way or another we are going to get an agreement.”

The next 48 hours are worth watching

Sunday, Jan. 24, 5:00 p.m. — The results of a union vote are in, and the majority of Chicago’s teachers, clinicians and paraprofessionals have voted to defy district orders to report to school buildings on Monday.

The vote, which the union said passed with 71% of those voting in favor, throws the school district’s reopening efforts into disarray.

It’s not clear yet if the school district will challenge the legal grounds of the vote. Chicago Public Schools has said the decision to not report to campuses constitutes an “illegal strike,” Union leaders have rejected that idea, noting that teachers plan to continue teaching virtually.

The next 48 hours will be closely watched. After the vote results were tallied and announced, the school district quickly responded, saying they would push back the date teachers return to buildings until Wednesday, giving the two sides more time to negotiate.

Officials on both sides have said negotiations are progressing, with talks resuming this afternoon.

Read more of our coverage here.

Vaccinations coming, with a caveat

Friday, Jan. 22, 9:00 a.m. — Could vaccinations change the tone of the school reopening conversation in Chicago? On Friday, district officials said that they were launching a plan to start vaccinating employees at school sites starting in mid-February. They said they do not plan to hit pause on the plan to reopen K-8 classrooms in the interim.

The process could stretch out over months unless the state’s federal vaccine shipments increase, Chalkbeat Chicago’s Mila Koumpilova reports.

A view from another district

Thursday, Jan. 21, 3:00 p.m. — Reopening school buildings during a pandemic has raised questions both practical and philosophical: Who gets to decide whether a school is safe to reopen? When is a strike, in the era of remote learning, legal or illegal?

Those issues are at the heart of a tense dispute between the teachers union and school district in Chicago, but we’re far from the only city grappling with them. The districts in Elmhurst and Cicero, two cities west of Chicago, are at loggerheads with their unions over similar issues.

On Thursday, they both took their cases to the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board, the state body tasked with overseeing education-related labor disputes. Last winter, the board rejected an appeal from the Chicago Teachers Union to delay school reopening until, they argued, the school district began bargaining in good faith.

In a sign of the length of labor practice suits, the board didn’t take a vote on the Elmhurst case, but heard oral arguments in two separate complaints against the district, one from the union and one from a paraprofessional group.

Cicero’s discussion Thursday struck similar tones to the one in Chicago. “We’ve given them metrics [for safety] they don’t like,” said Kimberly Jannotta, an attorney representing the school district. “They want to tell us what metrics to use.”

In contrast to Chicago, the Cicero teachers union won injunctive relief on Thursday. The board’s legal counsel, Ellen Strizak said, the district had not offered clear information on what COVID-19 metrics it was using to determine when school reopening was safe.

Cicero schools opened to teachers for the first time last week, but nearly half of its teachers refused to return to in-person learning.

The school district insists agreement is within reach

Thursday, Jan. 21, 11:00 a.m. — In a letter to teachers sent Thursday morning, 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.”

“We remain committed to continuing negotiations in good faith with union leadership,” the letter from the district’s chief talent officer said. “We are meeting every day and will continue to do so. An agreement is within reach, so long as we continue working hard together.”

The district also outlined where, in its view, it had reached agreement with union demands and where differences remained. Read more here.

Setting the stage for a strike

Wednesday, Jan. 20, 6:45 p.m. — A Wednesday night meeting of teachers union delegates has set in motion a series of events that could lead to walkouts next week, just as thousands more K-8 teachers are expected to return to school buildings.

Teachers have until Saturday at midnight to vote on a resolution that would start with walkouts and lead to a possible strike if district leadership and union officials can’t reach a reopening agreement. Chalkbeat Chicago’s Yana Kunichoff explains the next steps, and what’s at stake, here.

Clinicians write a letter

Wednesday, Jan. 20, 7:00 a.m. — Hundreds of Chicago Public Schools clinicians — social workers, speech pathologists, and other specialists who work primarily with children with disabilities — have signed a letter to the district about working conditions at reopened school buildings. In it, they argue the reopening plan does not factor in their “unique logistical considerations,” such as traveling between multiple schools and hands-on work with students with moderate to severe disabilities.

In a Wednesday morning press conference organized by the teachers union, the clinicians said they are concerned about the risk of traveling between schools to provide services and about poorly ventilated offices. “Prior to the pandemic, obtaining a consistent, private, ethical space to work with students was a significant challenge,” the letter reads. “We have no confidence that this will be resolved upon our return to our school buildings.”

The clinicians say they are surprised by the denials for accommodation requests, including those for child care — an issue that Chalkbeat Chicago’s Cassie Walker Burke explores further in this story about work-from-home request data and where the numbers stand so far.

Redefining the word ‘strike’

Tuesday, Jan. 19, 3:00 p.m. — The Chicago Teachers Union is taking the first of several steps it would need to move towards a teacher walkout. An emergency House of Delegates meeting is now planned for Wednesday.

The move signals ongoing labor tensions in Chicago ahead of a district plan to bring thousands more teachers back for in-person learning next week. But it’s not yet a green light for a strike.

The union must meet several legal standards before moving ahead with a strike or “unified job action,” as delegates say their potential labor action is termed. That includes holding an all-membership vote during which at least 75% of members vote in favor of a walkout.

On the table for discussion at Wednesday night’s meeting is a labor action where union members could refuse to work in buildings, but continue working online, which would not fit the definition of a traditional strike.

In a Monday evening virtual town hall, union leadership urged members to vote in favor of a unified action. “The vote has to be yes, otherwise we’re voting to walk back into unsafe buildings,” union president Jesse Sharkey said.

A tentative timeline for teacher vaccines

Tuesday, Jan. 19, 12:15 p.m. — The city’s chief health officer, Dr. Allison Arwady, offered a few new details on the city’s vaccination plans today, confirming that Chicago will launch the next phase — 1B — on Jan. 25 and prioritize seniors. Educators, too, will be prioritized starting in February, she said during her weekly “Ask Arwady” appearance.

Arwady encouraged residents to sign up for the city’s “COVID coach” text messaging service to receive updates on vaccination phases and plans.

A focus on parent choice

Tuesday, Jan. 19, 9:00 a.m. As the district’s second week of in-person learning for students dawned on Tuesday, schools chief Janice Jackson held a roundtable with parents at a West Side elementary school to highlight a key argument in the district’s push to reopen: parent choice.

“The parents’ request comes first,” said Jackson, who acknowledged that there were no fully COVID-19 free environments during the pandemic, and that teachers were worried about their health. Still, she said it was the district’s responsibility to give families a chance to learn in-person.

Rosario Anacleto, who has two children at Belmont-Cragin Elementary, said during the roundtable that her son, in third grade, had developed blurry vision in his eye from staring at a computer, and had trouble concentrating.

Reela Garcia, who also has two children at the school, said the decision to return had been difficult. She had been worried about teachers’ health, but had struggled to ensure her children were learning. “I’m just thankful that my kids even had a choice at this point,” said Garcia.

The school board convenes

Friday, Jan. 15, 3:30 p.m. — The Chicago Board of Education convened a special meeting Friday to hear public testimony. The number of public speaking spots was limited to five, and the board convened a closed session shortly after.

Three speakers urged the board to delay reopening buildings. One speaker asked the district to stay the course and offer parents a choice to send children back, and one asked the district to narrow the scope of the next phase of the rollout and focus on a smaller group of younger elementary students. Chicago is supposed to bring back K-8 students on Feb. 1. Read more coverage here.

A look at statewide numbers

Friday, Jan. 15, 2 p.m. — Statewide numbers this week compiled by the Illinois State Board of Education show an uptick in students with an option for “blended learning” — that is, attending a district that offers remote learning and in-person instruction. More than 950,000 Illinois students, or roughly half, have a blended learning option as of Jan. 12, with 800,000 Illinois students currently continuing to attend school remotely and nearly 200,000 have the option of a full return to school.

How that breaks down by district: Out of 846 districts that reported figures, 364, or 43%, are currently deploying a hybrid plan; 223 school districts, or 28%, are completely remote; and 249 school districts, 29%, are fully back to in-person learning.

Whether numbers shift as the state distributes more vaccination will be closely watched. Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced Friday that the phase 1B for vaccinations — which is supposed to include teachers — will begin on Jan. 25. This phase of vaccinations will prioritize residents ages 65 or older. This EdWeek tracker shows where teachers land in vaccination queues across the different states.

Kicking off a car caravan

Friday, Jan. 15, 10 a.m. — Union President Jesse Sharkey says this week has brought “better conversations” with district leadership about reopening. The union continues to push for an agreement and has added another demand to the list: It wants Chicago to reinstate the 100 or so teachers who were “locked out” of their remote classrooms this week after they did not report to buildings.

First-week fireworks

Friday, Jan. 15, 8:30 a.m. — Chicago’s schools reopened this week to students after 300 days of closures. The week will end as it began — with some teachers protesting the decision. Some teachers have been encouraged to call in sick, and a union-organized car caravan is starting in Union Park on the Near West Side. Today also brings a twist: a hurriedly called afternoon meeting of the city’s Board of Education.

Check back with us later today for updates.

In the meantime, Chalkbeat Chicago reporter Yana Kunichoff spent the week having in-depth conversations with parents and educators. Her reporting reveals a range of emotions, from shock to anxiety to joy. Find it here.

Nurses run around City Hall

Thursday, Jan. 14, 4:30 p.m. — As anyone who has visited Chicago’s City Hall building knows, it’s a massive structure with many doors — and the pandemic has strictly limited access to which of those doors the public can use.

So what started as a union-organized press conference held by a group of school nurses ended up with a sprint around City Hall as security guards pointed the group to different locked doors. The nurses ultimately were let in and delivered the letter to a member of the mayor’s communications staff.

“Nurses who work in schools have not been asked to formulate CPS’s plan, but we are expected to carry it out — despite our objections,” the letter reads. (Find it in full here.) “As the undersigned nurses employed by Chicago Public Schools (CPS), we wish to go on record as being opposed to the current plan of resuming in-person learning on January 11, as we do not believe it is safe for students, their families, or the wider community.”

COVID letters stir anxious conversations

Thursday, Jan. 14, 11 a.m. — Chicago schools are beginning to report their first coronavirus cases since some students returned to campuses this week.

Parents have received notifications and have begun anxiously discussing the cases on social media. The teachers union has highlighted cases to buttress their argument against the district’s reopening plan.

The district has reported positive COVID-19 cases among staff members working in its buildings for months. So far, the weekly counts remain below a November peak of 87 employee cases, even as thousands of teachers and teaching assistants returned to campuses last week. As of this week, the district reported 23 employee diagnoses.

How well the district is able to rein in transmission of the virus in its buildings as students return to classrooms is a crucial test of its reopening plan as some 70,000 additional elementary students are slated to go back Feb. 1.

At McCutcheon Elementary in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, additional staff are in quarantine after educators had reported cases there earlier in the week. The school remains open. Block Club has a report on the situation there.

Vaughn Occupational High School — the first Chicago public school to close after a coronavirus case last spring — notified families Wednesday evening of an employee COVID-19 case as well. The note, widely shared on social media, said parents do not need to take any further steps.

“All relevant areas of our school will be thoroughly cleaned and sanitized,” it said.

The Chicago Teachers Union said its members are reporting they were notified about student cases in at least two schools. The union said a student tested positive on Monday at Otis Elementary and exposed staff members were directed to quarantine for two weeks.

The district has not confirmed these cases, and its online tracker does not list any student cases this week.

New York begins vaccinating teachers

Thursday, Jan. 14, 9:30 a.m. — New York officials have prioritized vaccines for a wide swath of education workers — including teachers, day care workers, and bus drivers — putting them in the second wave of eligibility after frontline health care workers and nursing home residents and staff. That rollout, which began this week, could help speed the return of in-person learning, as teachers are more likely than students to become seriously ill from the coronavirus. The vaccine is not yet approved for children.

But even as thousands of teachers sign up for shots, our Chalkbeat New York colleague Alex Zimmerman reports that questions remain about how much supply New York will have on hand and how quickly officials can manage to vaccinate large numbers of people. The vaccine rollout has been sluggish and there have been early glitches and confusion with the online process for scheduling vaccine appointments.

Speaking Thursday from a Chicago vaccination site, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Chicago is still working its way through the first vaccination phase of health care workers and long-term care facility residents. Supply continues to be an issue, she stresses. “We need more first doses all around the country,” she says. “We need that to happen and need that to happen soon.”

She says again that 1B — a phase that is supposed to include teachers — will start “very soon” and that Chicago will rely on an appointment-based system, but there are no more details shared about specific timelines or process for educators.

Asking experts

Wednesday, Jan. 13, 5 p.m. — The second installment of a joint series on school reopening organized by UIC and Chicago Public Schools takes place Thursday. Dr. Kenneth Fox, the district’s chief health officer, will be there. The series is virtual and intended to answer questions from parents. Details here.

Fox was among the CPS officials who testified this week at a marathon City Council hearing about school reopening. Today, 19 City Council members made public a letter pushing for a second hearing before K-8 students are set to return Feb. 1. This time, aldermen are asking for principals and teachers be invited to testify.

Elected school board push fizzles

Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2:00 p.m. — A tumultuous lame-duck legislative session has come to a close. The Illinois House has a new speaker to end Michael Madigan’s history-making run and an omnibus education bill that would revise graduation requirements is heading to the governor’s desk. But it is curtains — for now — for the elected school board bill.

Chalkbeat Chicago’s Samantha Smylie reports more here.

Teacher COVID-19 rates: It’s complicated

Wednesday, Jan. 13, 10:50 a.m. — Our national desk colleague Matt Barnum reports on some limited data available that examines COVID-19 infection rates among teachers and other staff who have returned to school buildings in New York, Texas, and other places where slices of data are available.

The numbers show that teachers and other staff where school buildings are open have higher COVID-19 infection rates than their surrounding communities. But critically, the data does not show whether teachers caught the virus in schools, or offer definitive answers about the risks of school reopening.

It’s possible the results reflect more widespread testing among teachers, and the evidence that remote teachers have lower infection rates is mixed. But the latest data complicates our understanding of the risks of school reopening. Here’s the full story.

Spotlight on the school board

Wednesday, Jan. 13, 7:00 a.m. — Replicating a strategy employed during the 11-day strike in 2019, the Chicago Teachers Union held a press conference this morning outside of Chicago Board of Education President Miguel del Valle’s home in the Belmont-Cragin neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side.

Sol Camano, a Chicago preschool teacher, speaks outside the school board president’s house on Jan. 13, 2021.
Screenshot of a press conference on Facebook. Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat

Several pre-K and special education teachers who spoke have refused to report to school buildings and been locked out of their remote classrooms as a result.

Sol Camano, a second-year pre-K teacher at Jorge Prieto Math and Science Academy, was among them. In two years in the profession, she described what it’s like to experience a strike and now reopening discord between the union and district leadership. She’s currently among the more than 100 teachers locked out of remote classrooms and e-mail this week.

“My students are 4 and 5. They have no idea what’s going on. They know their teacher wasn’t there yesterday,” said Camano.

One teacher knocked on del Valle’s door, but there was not an immediate answer. Members of the school board have not addressed reopening in public since teachers returned to classrooms Jan. 4. The next board meeting is Jan. 27.

The digital divide is still a reality

Tuesday, Jan. 12, 4 p.m. — Chicago schools are reopening to students this week, but remote learning isn’t going away: Most students are sticking with it, and even most of those slated to return in person on Feb. 1 will continue learning from home three days a week.

Today reporter Mila Koumpilova takes a look at Chicago’s ambitious program to attempt to close the digital divide for low-income families. The program has now enrolled just over half of the 100,000 students it set out to connect — a goal officials say they are still on track to hit by the school year’s end.

Other cities are embracing the model. But some serious stumbling blocks remain. Read more here.

What happens when there are COVID-19 cases at schools?

Tuesday, Jan. 12, 10:30 a.m. — Since March 2020, Chicago Public Schools has reported 643 cases among employees who were working in meal programs, cleaning campuses, supervising remote learning daycare sites, and working on administrative teams while schools were closed to students. (Nine student cases have been reported in the same timeframe.) Now that nearly 400 schools have reopened to a first wave of students, families and school staff will be following closely how many cases are reported and whether classrooms, and even campuses, have to close.

On the second day of reopening, five employees at McCutcheon Elementary, including the principal and assistant principal, are in quarantine following a confirmed coronavirus case, reports Block Club Chicago.

The school is not pausing work or reopening, the district said; the quarantine went into place before the staff member had any contact with students. But the situation raises questions about how schools communicate to staff and educators when cases arise.

Locked out of classrooms

Tuesday, Jan 12, 6:30 a.m. — As the first round of disciplinary measures took effect against teachers who didn’t report to in-person work, the Chicago Teachers Union angrily fired back in a press conference Tuesday morning, calling it “cruel and illegal” and again saying educators have the right to refuse to work in conditions they deemed unsafe.

District figures released Monday evening estimated 145 educators would be locked out of their virtual classrooms and have their pay docked Tuesday for refusing to report to school buildings during school reopenings.

One of those educators is Linda Perales, a special education “cluster” teacher at Corkery Elementary in Little Village, who said at the press conference that she had been locked out of her Google classroom Monday night.

“My students will not have a familiar face that knows them there [online] to follow their routine,” said Perales, who said she was not returning to in-person learning because her young students were not able to wear masks or social distance.

CPS takes hard line on work return

Monday, Jan. 11, 7:00 p.m. — Chicago Public Schools said Monday night it will move to dock pay and block access to email and Google Classroom for 145 “AWOL” — or absent without leave — teachers beginning Tuesday. “The district will continue to monitor staff attendance and take steps to hold employees accountable who are not reporting to work in-person without valid reasons,” spokesman James Gherardi said in a statement Monday night.

The teachers represent a fraction of the nearly 3,500 educators and paraprofessionals expected to report to buildings this week. The district also provided a daily count of educators who did not clock in that day; on Monday that number was 678, a slight decrease from daily counts last week that ranged from 700 to 800 per day.

The total does not include the number of employees who were granted an accommodation based on a health or family reason, the district said.

Earlier in the evening, teachers began circulating on social media a notice from the district.

A marathon City Council hearing

Monday, Jan. 11, 4:00 p.m. — Chicago’s aldermen spent the day grilling a panel of Chicago Public Schools officials about the reopening plan, a discussion some said they’d wanted to have for months. As the hearing passed the five-hour mark, aldermen continued to press for particular details on everything from the number of air purifiers and substitute pools to staffing accommodations, custodian counts, and personal protective equipment.

Aldermen at times seemed surprised by some aspects of the plan, such as prohibitions on allowing parents in school buildings. And more than once, district and city health officials said they weren’t aware of the level of frustration expressed by aldermen.

In one particularly pointed exchange, South Side Alderman Jeanette Taylor — who participated in a 2015 hunger strike to save Walter Dyett High School from a wave of school closings — pressed officials on staffing data.

“70% of principals said that they are not ready (to reopen schools), 90% percent of teachers said they weren’t ready. Did you all take in consideration that data?” Taylor asked.

Frank Bilecki, the district’s chief of public policy, responded: “Teachers were surveyed; principals were surveyed. Principals have had multiple meetings with staff in regards to reopening. On Friday, about 71% or so of school staff did return —”

Taylor interrupted. “Not returned. They filled out a first survey to say that they were not ready or they didn’t feel it was safe. Ya’ll making people choose between whether they’re going to have somewhere to live and eat and coming back to your building.”

Hours into the discussion, Kenneth Fox, the district’s chief health officer, put his position plainly: “Talking about fears, this is something that frightens me: That kids are out of school and missing their opportunities for learning. And for what? Because we were too afraid to do what all the other Archdiocese and private schools have been doing for months? What kids have been doing all over the world for months? There are over a billion children back in school now.”

A bargaining bill gets a lift in Springfield

Monday, Jan. 11, 2:00 p.m. — All eyes may be on Chicago’s school reopening, but Springfield just gave the city’s teachers union some momentum. The Illinois Senate just passed House Bill 2275 by a 38-16 vote, effectively sending it to the governor’s desk. If Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs it, House Bill 2275 could give the union more leverage in the reopening debate.

The bill repeals a section of labor law, known as Section 4.5, that limits what’s up for discussion at the negotiating table. Most of the opposition to the bill comes from Senate Republicans.

On Sunday, Chicago Public Schools’ general counsel, Joseph Moriarty, said that passage of the bill could impact the city’s school reopening plan. If the bill passed, he said during public testimony before a Senate executive committee, “We will be back before the Illinois Educational Relations Labor Board and CTU will be seeking injunctive relief. CPS will not have 4.5 to rely on.”

Speaking Monday, Sen. Robert Peters (D-Chicago, 13th District), urged senators to vote in favor of the bill so that Chicago would no longer be an outlier with other school districts. Chicago is the only school district that has such limitations.

“We have a system where every other school district has these bargaining rights, except CPS. I think it’s simple. It’s not complicated. And after so long of hearing about Chicago’s, it’s so different from the rest of the state. Well, here’s an opportunity for it to be with the rest of the state.”

The official restart

Monday, Jan. 11, 10:00 a.m. — At a morning press conference at Dawes Elementary on the South Side, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and schools chief Janice Jackson described a smooth start.

“We started school today successfully,” Jackson said.

But city officials said they would not be able to provide student attendance numbers until next week and an updated number for employees reporting to work until later this week. Most recently, 71% of teachers and support staff expected to report to work did so on Friday, Jackson said, though she stressed some of those who did not come to their school buildings were following safety protocols after failing a daily health screener or traveling out of state during the holidays.

“The majority of our teachers are doing exactly what they are supposed to,” Jackson said.

Jackson said again that teachers who did not receive an accommodation to work from home and continue to resist returning will have access to their Google Classroom accounts blocked and their pay docked — after receiving several warnings from the district. The district’s teachers union has questioned whether the district can legally take those steps.

Jackson also said the district launched last week its voluntary rapid testing program for school employees, and it will post the results in real time on its website as teachers are randomly tested monthly. About a fifth of school-based employees declined to participate in the voluntary program last week.

Asked about her decision to extend the city’s stay-at-home advisory even as schools reopen, Lightfoot said that she sees no contradiction: Schools are considered an essential service, and she said, “From the very beginning, schools were exempt from the stay-at-home advisory.”

Scenes from an atypical first day

Monday, Jan. 11, 8:00 a.m. — The first day back to school for students at Bateman Elementary in Albany Park started with an old standby: the school photo. One parent snapped a picture on the front steps of Bateman’s imposing, multi-story brick facade. Another had their child stand next to a colorful sign with the school’s name, the school playground in the background.

But this year isn’t like any other.

As families line up outside the door of Bateman, with the recommended distance between them marked by orange traffic cones, the young students, bundled up in hats, coats and masks, hopped and skipped with barely suppressed energy.

“We can’t wait to learn together today,” said an educator who, holding a digital thermometer, welcomed families into the building one-by-one.

Dressing for work in 2021

Monday, Jan. 11, 7:50 a.m. — One Chicago preschool teacher weighs in on dressing for the first day of work.

‘The choice is yours’

Sixth grade teacher Erin Kelley stands outside of Davis Elementary in Chicago on the first day of reopening.
Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat

Monday, Jan. 11, 7:00 a.m. — Preschool teacher Kate O’Rourke joined in a Chicago Teachers Union rally outside of Davis Elementary, a school in Brighton Park’s neighborhood, before sunrise. O’Rourke said three of her preschool students were signed up last week to return to campus, but by Monday, their parents had all reversed course. “They all pulled out (of in-person learning),” she said.

O’Rourke, who was granted a last-minute accommodation to work from home on Sunday after multiple requests, said preschool teachers still have a lot of unanswered questions.

“Teachers are confused about whether we can have books,” she said. She’s worried children will have to sit in their desks all day and that centers aren’t allowed.

She said she’s also concerned about the teachers’ assistants and special education assistants, who generally earn less than teachers, who may choose to return because they feel like they have no option. (The district has said staff who refuse to report to work and do not have accommodations will start facing consequences.)

The school’s union delegate, Erin Kelley, a sixth grade teacher, said that teachers are trying to support each other, even if some choose to return. “What I’ve been saying is that the choice is yours. You have to do what’s best for you.”

The first day back

Monday, Jan. 11, 5:30 a.m. — About 6,000 pre-kindergarten and special education students are expected to report to school today after nearly 10 months of closures amid the COVID-19 pandemic. There will be a lot to watch: A visit by Mayor Lori Lightfoot to one campus, a parent picket line scheduled at another, teachers union rallies, and a 10 a.m. City Council committee hearing about the reopening plan.

We’ll be reporting all day. Keep checking back for updates.

Over the weekend, there was a flurry activity. The district sent e-mails and social media messages in an aim to clear up last-minute questions and “misleading” information about aspects of the plan, such as care pods for sick students.

Meanwhile, a state legislative committee debated a bill Sunday that would expand the bargaining rights of Chicago Teachers Union members, and several Local School Councils weighed decisions to draft advisory resolutions asking the district to delay the plan. The teachers union expanded a crowdfunding campaign for educators who might lose wages from opting to not report to buildings.

Is withholding pay legal?

Friday, Jan. 8, 5:00 p.m. — A deputy general counsel for the Chicago Teachers Union said Friday that it is “illegal” for the school district to withhold pay from teachers who don’t report to work on Monday as assigned.

In an afternoon press call with educators and clerks, Thad Goodchild responded to a warning from district leaders that pay would be withheld from pre-K and special education teachers who don’t return. Earlier in the day, district officials said about 65% of teachers were reporting as requested, an increase from the start of the week.

“Employees have a right to decline an unsafe work assignment and to make themselves available to continue working in the same manner as they have the past 10 months,” Goodchild said. “Educators who exercise their rights to continue to work remotely are entitled to be paid for that work. It is illegal for CPS to withhold their pay as they are threatening to. It doesn’t sound like equity to me and it doesn’t sound legal.”

Forging ahead

Friday, Jan. 8, 9:00 a.m. — In strongly worded remarks Friday morning, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and schools chief Janice Jackson said schools would be fully operational Monday for the 6,000 preschool and special education students who’ve selected to return. Despite decisions by some teachers to not report to campuses this week, Jackson said the district had seen an uptick in teachers who returned to schools as the week progressed. Read more here.

Parents questions’ on pre-K

Thursday, Jan. 7, 5:30 p.m. — Contrary to fears that COVID-19 will strip early learning classrooms of everything but desks, preschool children will still find plenty of play items when they return to classrooms Monday, Chicago Public Schools’ early learning chief, Bryan Stokes II, said Thursday afternoon.

Stokes was the first district official in the spotlight in a new “Ask an Expert” series on reopening coproduced by the school district and University of Illinois at Chicago. (Next week is the district’s chief medical officer Kenneth Fox.) He did so as thousands of pre-K students are expected to return.

He said that stuffed animals, sand tables, and other play elements that cannot be easily sanitized on a daily basis will be removed from classrooms. But teachers can still make use of centers, book nooks, and other regular features of preschool classrooms.

Some Power Point presentations circulating around social media to Chicago parents show rooms stripped bare of everything but a desk. He described a different setup.

“There will be blocks, there will be puzzles, there will be all of the activities that teachers create,” he said. “There will be differences — but at the same time kids have already adapted to many of those differences. In a classroom setting, being able to engage with a teacher will be hugely beneficial.”

In response to parents’ questions about whether their children’s classroom teachers may get shuffled midyear, Stokes said it’s up to individual schools. There are many variables, from how many students at a particular school choose in-person learning to how many teachers at a school are granted accommodations.

Could vaccines change the conversation?

Pfizer vaccines prepped and ready to go for patients in Colorado, including some school nurses.
Rachel Ellis/The Denver Post

Wednesday, Jan. 6, 1:10 p.m. — With the city’s teachers union now putting vaccinations on its demand list, where will Illinois teachers fall in line for vaccinations — and when?

In a news briefing, Gov. J.B. Pritzker shared more details about the next phase of the state’s vaccination plan, called 1B, which is to include educators and child care workers as well as adults age 65 and over. There’s still no exact forecasts on timing, but he said that phase 1B should launch within the next few weeks and that the City of Chicago — which controls its own vaccine distribution — will have authority to set up sites particularly for teachers.

Supply is currently the biggest hurdle, with the state about a quarter of the way through its first phase (1A) of health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities. So far, Illinois has administered 207,106 vaccinations.

A citywide debate

Wednesday, Jan. 6, 12:30 p.m. — The reopening conversation is spilling over into new venues, with word that Chicago City Council’s education committee will host a reopening hearing at 10 a.m. Jan. 11, opinion pieces in the Chicago Tribune taking aim at the union and urging for reopening to proceed as planned, and a flurry of resolutions calling to delay reopening from the school district’s Local School Councils.

At least 19 councils have passed resolutions asking the district to delay reopening. The letters are symbolic because the representative bodies, made up of parents, teachers and community members, don’t have authority to change how instruction is delivered.

But they are a sign of the increasingly politicized spaces that councils have held in the last year in the wake of the votes on whether to retain school police.

In a letter to council members, Guillermo Montes de Oca, head of the council office, said it was important that schools “allow each family to decide if they are ready to return to their schools.”

Parent advocacy group Raise Your Hand is collecting council letters here.

Some schools have held council meetings to discuss the resolutions. More than 100 people logged into a virtual council meeting Sunday at McPherson Elementary in Ravenswood, reaching participant restrictions on Zoom.

The discussion included a parent representative asking other parents not to send their kids into school to protect the health of teachers, and the principal explaining where sick students would wait in the school, if necessary. The council passed its resolution.

New demands from CTU

Tuesday, Jan 5. 5:35 p.m. — The Chicago Teachers Union said Tuesday afternoon that it wants to delay the start of in-person school until staff can receive at least one dose of the vaccine.

In a new list of demands, the union said it would also consider moving forward on a reopening agreement if the district offered teachers a voluntary return to in-person learning and provided weekly testing for in-person educators. If the district agrees to delay school reopening for a vaccine, the union said it would suggest extending school until the summer.

It’s not clear yet when teachers will be vaccinated.

The union previously had called for the city to establish a 3% positivity threshold for reopening decisions. Union attorney Thad Goodchild said the proposals shared Tuesday offer Chicago Public Schools an alternative path toward an agreement on school reopening.

Chicago’s COVID-19 rate is currently 10.6% but district officials said they are using a different reopening metric that considers “case doubling time” — the number of days it takes the number of newly diagnosed cases to double.

As the first wave of teachers returned to school this week, the district and union said they had increased the number of bargaining sessions, even as both sides have continued to criticize the other.

Who’s coming back?

Tuesday, Jan 5. 8:30 a.m. — District officials presented staffing numbers showing that half of the Chicago Public Schools pre-kindergarten and special education teachers and about 70% of support staff who were expected to return to school buildings Monday did.

Schools chief Janice Jackson called the turnout significant given what she described as pressure from the district’s teachers union not to return to work — and she said she believes more employees will start coming to school buildings in the coming days.

Jackson insisted a written accord with the union is within reach, a statement that Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates challenged. Read more here.

Principals in the middle

Tuesday, Jan 5. 6:30 a.m. — In a first joint appearance of the two groups, Troy LaRaviere, the head of the Chicago Principals & Administrators Association, joined a morning press call with Chicago Teachers Union leadership to critique the city’s reopening plan. He urged school district leadership to consult principals before moving forward.

“We’re the ones who have to implement the plan,” said LaRaviere, a former principal. “Ask any hospital administration who has been successful at keeping doors open safely, they’ll tell you they brought in anyone involved,” from administrators to custodians.

A Monday survey by the association of 300 principals and assistant principals, a fraction of its larger membership, showed that 22% of respondents said they had the staff they needed to reopen safely” and 17% said reopening in January and February was the right decision, with 64% saying the district timing was wrong; 19% of survey respondents did not answer that question.

LaRaviere said his membership wants to see joint bargaining between the district, its principals, and its teachers; a differentiated return timeline based on school readiness; a pool of cadre substitutes and staff dedicated to each school to fill absences and help with administrative tasks; and a public metrics threshold for when schools should be opened or closed. They also want a reconsideration of simultaneous instruction — when the district asks educators to teach remotely and in-person at the same time, similar to the city’s Catholic schools.

Anecdotally, principals’ reactions were mixed, he said. “Principals are not a monolith,” said LaRaviere. “For the most part, you have a big group of folks in the middle who are very frustrated and upset but not quite frustrated or upset enough to risk their employment.”

In the joint call, Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey said that during a Monday evening call of 2,400 pre-K and special education cluster teachers who were asked to report back to work that day, 49% said they did not report to buildings. The district has not yet said how many teachers reported to work Monday.

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