Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey said Friday that Chicago Public Schools' latest offer - a proposal Mayor Lori Lightfoot called the district's "last, best and final" offer - in negotiations over a return to classrooms "cannot stand" and is a "threat" to cut students off from schooling.
Sharkey's comments were made in a letter emailed to CTU members on Friday afternoon, saying Lightfoot "has walked away from the bargaining table again" after submitting the offer Thursday night.
“Yesterday afternoon, we received a counter proposal from CTU leadership and responded with our last, best, and final offer," Lightfoot and CPS CEO Dr. Janice Jackson said in a joint statement Friday morning. "We expect a response from CTU leadership today. We will be making further statements later today about school on Monday."
Sharkey said the offer from CPS would pause in-person learning if there are COVID-19 outbreaks in 50% of buildings at the same time, which he said amounts to more than 200 schools. He also noted that the proposal "denies remote work accommodations to 75 percent of educators with household members at high-risk for COVID-19" and "will not make any improvement in remote learning, despite four out of five students remaining remote."
In a news conference Thursday, Lightfoot said discussions between the district and the union had moved "backward" as she blasted the union, saying the city was "out of runway" to get a deal done.
"These schools are open and safe and we are ready to welcome our students back. And frankly, they've been ready for some time. All we need now is a CTU leadership to get serious and meet us at the finish line," Lightfoot said Thursday. "My patience for delays from the CTU leadership is over."
Thousands of elementary and middle school staff and teachers were expected to return to schools last week, with an estimated 71,000 kindergarten through eighth grade students scheduled to join them this past Monday - though both were postponed 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 but were moved back to remote learning on Monday after the union's vote. Remote learning has continued through Thursday, with a previously planned non-attendance day on Friday and a decision on next week's plan up in the air.
“This is a pandemic, and that means our schools have to get every single mitigation protection right if we’re serious about keeping children and adults safe,” Sharkey said in a statement Friday. “We’re deeply disappointed that the mayor has chosen to stop negotiating and instead move to lock out educators and shut down schools rather than work out our differences."
CPS previously said that a refusal to return to schools would constitute an "illegal strike" and Lightfoot warned last weekend that the district would be prepared to "take action" if teachers did not report to classrooms, saying that teachers who did not return would be considered "absent without leave" and not authorized to conduct remote learning.
The district reversed course on that decision Monday, saying that as negotiations continue, teachers would not be locked out of their virtual classrooms. The union's leadership called for bargaining to continue Friday, saying that the latest offer represents "a threat" to lock out educators moving forward.
"Our stance hasn't changed: We are willing to work and we are willing to negotiate the safest agreement for our students, their families and all stakeholders in our school communities," Sharkey said.
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.