An independent arbitrator last week ruled that Chicago Public Schools’ buildings are not currently “safe and healthful” for the hundreds of clerks and other staff required to do their work in person. Now, union officials say the school district has essentially ignored a deadline to come up with a solution.
Chicago Teachers Union leaders on Monday said that CPS was given a two-day window for negotiations with the union on how to improve ventilation and safety conditions inside school buildings for the approximately 1,000 clerks, clerk assistants and technology coordinators working there now.
But that time has passed and a new solution has not yet been adopted.
“CPS has done nothing to improve the air purification in its schools and the evidence showed that only 7% of the air filters used in CPS buildings meet industry recommended standards from purifying the air from COVID-19,” CTU attorney Robert Bloch said Monday. “If CPS can’t make its schools safe for 1,000 employees, how will it ever be safe for 400,000 students and staff?”
Those 1,000 employees were required to report for in-person work as of Aug. 31, despite the fact that CPS decided on a remote learning plan for at least the first quarter of the school year.
The labor dispute began over the summer, when the union filed a grievance against the district on behalf of these employees. On Friday, arbitrator Jeanne Charles ruled that CPS and the Board of Education did not “sufficiently mitigate the risk to these employees by directing them to work full time inside school buildings when certain duties can be performed remotely.”
CPS contends it implemented a “comprehensive health and safety plan” in accordance with the “strongest available public health guidance” in order to keep safe everyone who does enter a school building.
“The arbitrator’s deeply flawed ruling substitutes actual public health standards for her own judgements and doesn’t find any actual deficiencies in the district’s plan or a single building where conditions are unsafe,” CPS spokesman Michael Passman said in a statement. “We will be moving to have the ruling reconsidered based on local and national public health standards and a complete assessment of the district’s efforts to protect staff.”
Masks and social distancing requirements are already in place within CPS buildings, according to the district, while hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes are available, and “stringent cleaning and disinfection protocols” are in place.
CPS also contends Charles found no violations of its health standards and conducted no visits to district schools to independently evaluate any concerns.
Charles gave the sides two days to try and work out a compromise, but CTU leaders said they didn’t hear from the school district until Sunday night and that an agreement was not reached.
CTU said it learned last week of confirmed COVID-19 cases inside four schools: Lane Tech High School, and Canty, Mount Greenwood and Funston elementary schools. Last Thursday, a teacher at Funston, Olga Quiroga, died after contracting the coronavirus.
"We lost a member over the weekend, unfortunately,” CTU Recording Secretary Christel Williams-Hayes said. “Her position will be posted shortly. That’s real life. This is real."
The union called on Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS to delay any return to school buildings until the district has remedied “unsafe” conditions in schools and reached an agreement with CTU on additional safety protections.
“While we’re very, very conscious that people want to get their kids back in schools, we want to be back in school too,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said. “We understand the difficulties this poses for students who have (individual education plans), special education students, our youngest learners. It’s also critical that people be safe. You can’t learn if you’re dead.”