In Close Vote, Rank-and-File Teachers Approve Safety Deal With Chicago Public Schools

Video: CPS students return to class but the bad blood between Mayor Lightfoot and the teachers union seems likely to persist. The fight to redraw Chicago’s ward map drags on. And more candidates emerge for hotly contested statewide seats. All that with our Spotlight Politics team. (Produced by Nick Blumberg)

Members of the Chicago Teachers Union have approved a safety agreement with the city that will expand testing, contact tracing and mask distribution, as Chicago Public Schools students returned to their classrooms after five days at home.

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Rank-and-file CTU members on Wednesday signed off on the deal, two days after the union’s elected delegates voted to suspend a labor action that saw the vast majority of teachers refusing to work in person amid a spike in COVID-19 cases.

But the decision came on a slim margin, with just under 56% of voting members casting their ballots in favor of the agreement.

“This vote is a clear show of dissatisfaction with the boss,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said Wednesday. “It’s outrageous that teachers, school nurses, counselors and more had to endure a week of being locked out by the mayor just to get a commitment from her bargaining team to provide every student with an N95 mask in a pandemic.”

Teachers returned to their schools Tuesday and classes districtwide resumed Wednesday morning after being canceled for five consecutive school days as the CTU and city negotiated the new agreement.

According to CPS, 89% of CTU teachers reported to work on Wednesday.

As part of the deal, CPS has agreed to conduct regular COVID-19 screening testing, in which 10% of students, chosen randomly, will be tested each week going forward. The union had initially pushed for universal opt-out testing, but Mayor Lori Lightfoot vehemently rejected that plan, calling it “morally repugnant” to test children without their parents’ explicit permission.

CPS and the union will work together to “increase student participation in screening testing and student vaccination with the goal of achieving 100% participation by Feb. 1,” per the agreement. Teachers who volunteer to call parents as part of phone banking efforts will be paid for their time, additional tests will be sent to schools where confirmed cases are rising and students who are removed from class with potential COVID-19 symptoms will be tested.

In addition, the district will provide KN95 masks for staff and students. Schools can also decide to reinstate a health screener for those entering their buildings.

The sides also reached an agreement on a metric that can be used to decide when individual schools should flip to remote learning. Schools would cut off in-person learning in the event 40% of students are in isolation or quarantine, or 30% of school staff are absent due to COVID-19 for two straight days.

City officials have repeatedly rejected calls for districtwide remote learning, citing concerns about losing contact with thousands of students, learning loss and the strain placed on students’ mental health. Those issues arose when CPS went fully remote during the height of the pandemic.

“We are pleased we have come to an agreement that guarantees predictability and stability for the rest of the school year,” Lightfoot and CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said in a statement Wednesday. “We all agree we must prioritize the health and well-being of everyone in our school communities including our kids, families, and staff.”

Sharkey this week said no one on the union’s bargaining team necessarily believes the agreement is a “home run,” but added the deal is one they feel is “something we can hold our heads up about.”

The union’s Vice President Stacy Davis Gates told WTTW News that she has heard “a  lot of anxiety” from some teachers who feel the deal didn’t go far enough.

“It doesn’t have everything that school districts just outside of Chicago have, quite frankly,” she said on “Chicago Tonight” Tuesday, “but they also have leadership in those spaces that are clear about working with families and educators and not making the people who are in the school community expendable.”

Heather Cherone contributed to this report.

Contact Matt Masterson: @ByMattMasterson[email protected] | (773) 509-5431

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