With an impending COVID-19 vaccination deadline for employees, unvaccinated Chicago Public Schools teachers and staffers will be able to opt for weekly testing and continue working after this week.
CPS CEO Pedro Martinez on Wednesday said those who are not fully vaccinated by Friday’s deadline must consent to weekly testing, but will not be immediately barred from working, as had previously been threatened.
“Employees will not be barred from coming to work,” he said. “We’re going to just work with them to see where they’re at in the vaccination process, what hesitation they might have, what information we can give them … I feel fairly confident that we’re going to be ok.”
The shift comes after union leaders, Chicago teachers and staffers penned a letter asking Mayor Lori Lightfoot not to bar unvaccinated employees from their work after this week.
Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey and leaders from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) penned a letter to the mayor Wednesday, saying immediate enforcement of the vaccine mandate will “leave schools dangerously understaffed, and disproportionately impact employees of color within CPS.”
“Understaffed schools are unsafe schools,” the officials said in the letter. “We urge you to avert this dangerous situation by refraining from punitive enforcement of your vaccine policy for CPS staff. We also urge CPS to join the CTU and SEIU Local 73 in partnership to get unvaccinated workers access to the vaccine and greater safety in the coming days and weeks.”
Lightfoot issued a vaccination mandate for all city employees, but has since said that those who have not received the vaccine can continue working if they instead get tested for COVID-19 twice per week through December. Martinez would not say how long this weekly testing exemption would continue for CPS employees, though he said it’s “not indefinite.”
According to Martinez, 85% of district employees are vaccinated as of Wednesday, and the teachers union said it is planning vaccination events this week in the communities “most in need.”
Asked about the impact on CPS during an unrelated press conference Wednesday, Lightfoot said she didn’t “want to talk about the consequences” if someone isn’t vaccinated.
“We really want to focus on the positive,” she said. “Get yourself vaccinated.”
The CTU has been in favor of a vaccine mandate, and said its goal is to vaccinate as many of its members, school community members and Chicagoans as possible. In the letter, it contrasted those efforts with other unions who have “detestably compar(ed)” the mandate “to Nazism.”
The head of the Chicago police officers’ union has called on its members to defy the city’s requirement to report their COVID-19 vaccination status by Friday or be placed on unpaid leave.
In the video posted online Tuesday and first reported on by the Chicago Sun-Times, Fraternal Order of Police President John Catanzara vowed to take Lightfoot’s administration to court if it tries to enforce the mandate, which requires city workers to report their vaccine status by the end of the work week.
Catanzara suggested if the city does enforce its requirement and many union members refuse to comply with it, “It’s safe to say that the city of Chicago will have a police force at 50% or less for this weekend coming up.”
Lightfoot on Wednesday said she “does not expect that to happen.”
“Our message is to the members, protect yourself, protect your partner, protect members of the public, get yourself vaccinated,” she said. “We don’t want to lose any more police officers for COVID-19 deaths when a life-saving vaccine is readily available.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.