Teachers and staff at high schools in the Chicago Public Schools district worked remotely Wednesday in a day of labor action as the Chicago Teachers Union continues to negotiate over the plan to resume in-person learning in high schools.
CPS announced last month that students in ninth through 12th grades can return for classroom instruction on April 19, the first day of the fourth quarter, while teachers and staff were told to return to schools on April 12 in order to prepare.
But CPS and the CTU's bargaining team have continued to negotiate over the return to in-person learning for high schools, which have been entirely remote since last March.
"We're doing the action to protest the fact that we do not yet have a return to work agreement," CTU President Jesse Sharkey said during a news conference Wednesday morning, adding, "Bargaining has actually been fairly productive."
Sharkey said the union is calling for "very reasonable demands" in negotiations.
"We're making demands that deal with the ability to limit capacity in high schools to safe levels. High schools cannot make pods," Sharkey said. "We're dealing with demands that have to do with the Board making reasonable accommodations for members and their ability to telework in certain situations. We're making demands that have to do with... vaccinations, especially in the context of increasing transmission, and those are a fairly limited set of issues right now."
CPS spokesman Michael Passman said in a statement on Monday that the district was "firmly committed" to welcoming high school students back on April 19, saying, "tens of thousands of high school students and their families are counting on us to open high school classrooms."
"Productive discussions with CTU continued throughout the weekend, and we have general alignment on a set of key topics including safety protocols to keep students and staff safe and scheduling models that will be tailored to the needs of each school," the statement continued. "We hope to reach an agreement as soon as possible to ensure a smooth transition for our high school students and families.”
It was not immediately clear how many teachers and staff members at CPS high schools participated in the remote work on Wednesday.
Staff and students in pre-kindergarten through 8th grade have all returned to classrooms in recent weeks under the district's phased plan to resume in-person learning.
That plan was implemented after CPS and the CTU reached a deal to reopen schools following weeks of acrimonious negotiations over safety protocols, vaccinations and more. When the agreement between CTU and CPS was announced, there was no plan in place for high school students and staff to return.
In its reopening agreement with the union, the district agreed to administer vaccinations to 1,500 employees per week out of the city's supply at CPS' vaccination sites. All education workers in Illinois became eligible to be vaccinated in the state's Phase 1B of vaccinations, which began in January.
The agreement between CTU and CPS also included metrics to return to all remote learning if the pandemic worsens. The district will move to online learning for at least 14 calendar days if the city's rolling 7-day average test positivity rate: increases for seven consecutive days, is at least 15% higher each of those days than the rate one week prior and if the rate is 10% or higher on the 7th day.
Should that happen, CPS will resume in-person learning after 14 days or when the positivity rate no longer meets those three metrics, whichever happens later, the district said.
For individual pods, in-person learning will be paused when there has been one confirmed positive COVID-19 case and for individual schools, the district says it will implement a "school-wide operational pause when there are three or more confirmed positive cases in three or more different classrooms at a school within a 14-day period."
Students are also required to complete health screenings each day, according to the district. The screening must be filled out by parents before the school day begins or by students when they arrive at school, and students must have a temperature at or below 100.4 degrees to be allowed to enter school.
Any student with a fever or any COVID symptoms, such as cough, sore throat, shortness of breath or a lack of taste or smell, will be sent home.
Disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizer and sneeze guards are all installed in schools for usage by students and teachers, with HEPA air filters also installed to circulate and clean air in classrooms.
The district said it will continue to grant approval for remote work for employees at increased risk for severe illness due to COVID-19 or for those who serve as primary caregivers for family members at increased risk. CPS said that other accommodation requests will be granted "when operationally feasible and consistent with providing a high quality learning experience to in-person students" and that any union member who is not granted an accommodation and is not fully vaccinated can take unpaid leave with benefits during the third quarter.
The deal also included agreements on health and safety protocols (like health screenings, access to personal protective equipment, cleaning protocols and more), a plan for enhanced ventilation in schools, as well as the creation of a contact tracing team plus districtwide and school-level health and safety committees to oversee implementation.