What happens if Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union don't reach a deal in negotiations over the return to classrooms? Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Thursday refused to speculate, insisting an agreement was necessary and that "time is running out."
Lightfoot and CPS officials as well as the union said Thursday no deal had been reached amid the negotiations, with the mayor saying during a news conference that discussions had taken "a series of steps backward" as she blasted CTU.
"We need to get this deal done and get it done today, without further delay," Lightfoot said. "I've expressed that to President [Jesse] Sharkey in very direct terms. I expect to hear from them. No more delay."
CPS announced at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday that students would continue with remote learning on Thursday, receiving some criticism for the late notice for parents that Lightfoot addressed.
"I've heard from parents, 'Why did you not let us know last night sooner?' Because we were waiting on the CTU, and on the off chance that we had the ability to actually get a break through. We wanted to be able to share that news, but we waited, and waited and waited, and waited," Lightfoot said.
Friday was previously scheduled as a non-attendance day, giving the two sides a few more days to negotiate - though the mayor insisted an agreement be made Thursday and refused to discuss what might happen is a deal is not reached.
"We're out of runway. We're right here at the finish line. And we need CTU to join us and go over the threshold," Lightfoot said.
"I'm not going to speculate. We need to get it done today," she continued. "There's no reason why we shouldn't have gotten it done yesterday or Tuesday or Monday, but today is the day my patience is up."
"I understand what the concerns are. We have been bending over backwards. I have been personally involved in trying to craft solutions and partly why we've had the movement that we've made today, this week, but we can't keep taking steps back. We can't wait hours and hours and hours, and have no response other than 'We're working on it.' That's not good enough anymore. It's simply not good enough anymore," Lightfoot said. "If we were in December, maybe, maybe even in January, but now, in February, it's not good enough. No more excuses. Let's get it done and get it done today. That's the only thing I'm focused on today."
CTU circulated an open letter to parents ahead of Lightfoot's news conference Thursday, saying the battle was about safety and that the mayor and district "have unilaterally tried to impose a plan to return educators and students to in-person learning without involving our members, principals, students or parents."
CTU said CPS "for a long time refused to bargain regarding its reopening plan" and that the district's initial proposals "lacked many of the basic safety elements found in other school districts, like COVID testing and contact tracing, health and safety metrics, and protocols for the inevitable school closures that will result from reopening buildings without control of community spread."
The union said that it was only after teachers voted last month to take collective action that CPS "showed some urgency."
"We cannot return to in-person instruction until we have made more progress with the district on CDC-based health metrics, allowing educators with medically vulnerable family members to continue to teach remotely, and addressing real equity needs for the vast majority of our students," the union said.
That final point includes things like "support for rental assistance and investment in resources to keep communities safe in a pandemic," the union said, claiming Lightfoot and CPS leadership "mocked" the union for raising that issue in negotiations.
When CPS announced on Wednesday night that remote learning would continue into Thursday, the district said the 48-hour "cooling off period" they proposed for Monday to Wednesday would be extended one more day.
Part of that cooling off period was a change in CPS' decision on teachers' access to their virtual classrooms. District officials had initially warned that educators would be locked out of virtual classrooms if they did not return to schools this week, but reversed course and on Monday said that would not be the case.
CPS and CTU appear to have reached tentative agreements on testing, workplace requirements, personal protective equipment and a safety committee, sources close to the negotiations told NBC 5 on Wednesday.
According to a bargaining document from sources, CPS and the teachers union agreed to provide 1,500 vaccine doses per week to members. The two groups have not yet reached an agreement on health metrics or health accommodations.
Kindergarten through eighth grade students were initially scheduled to return to classrooms Monday, per the district's reopening plan, though that was put on hold after members of the teachers union voted to continue remote learning until educators had been vaccinated against COVID-19.
A limited number of students in pre-K and programs returned to classrooms last month in accordance with the district's plan, though those students were moved back to remote learning after the union's vote.
Thousands of elementary and middle school staff and teachers were expected to return to schools last week, with an estimated 71,000 students scheduled to join them on Monday - though both were postponed amid the standoff.
CPS previously said that a refusal to return to schools would constitute an "illegal strike" and Lightfoot warned over the weekend that the district would be prepared to "take action" if teachers did not report to classrooms.
Lightfoot has repeatedly insisted that the CPS plan has been thoroughly vetted by medical experts, including Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady, and that it has been borne out in charter and Archdiocese classrooms in the city since the fall, as well as in pre-K and cluster learning classrooms that returned last month.
The union has pushed back on those assertions, saying that there have been enough coronavirus cases reported in the district since pre-K and cluster students returned to classrooms that they are justified in seeking a return to remote learning until educators can be vaccinated against the virus.