The Chicago Teachers Union sent a letter to Chicago Public Schools parents on Thursday emphasizing safety and equity as both sides continue negotiations over the return to in-person learning.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said discussions had moved "backward" as she blasted the union in a news conference, while the union claimed in a letter to parents that the mayor and district "mocked" them for raising needs of families "beyond the classroom."
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.
CPS announced late Wednesday that students would continue with remote learning on Thursday, with no agreement reached with the CTU. Friday was a previously scheduled non-attendance day, giving the two sides a few more days to negotiate.
"We do not have a deal to report this morning, but we will remain at the table, in an effort to get a deal done. The ball is in the CTU's court," Lightfoot said at a news conference alongside CPS CEO Dr. Janice Jackson Thursday morning.
The district tweeted the decision at around 9:30 p.m. Wednesday night, writing, "We are disappointed to report that at this time, no deal has been reached between CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union leadership. We will extend the cooling off period for the final time through the end of the day on Thursday to allow for further negotiations tonight."
The district had called for a 48-hour "cooling off period on Monday, lasting through Wednesday night, noting that the two sides had made progress in their discussions.
CPS also reversed course on Monday in saying that as negotiations continue, teachers would not be locked out of their virtual classrooms like district officials had initially warned they would if they did not return to schools this week. That decision not to lock teachers out continued with the "cooling off period" through the end of the day Thursday, the district said.
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.
“All teachers, pre-K through eight and cluster teachers must report,” Lightfoot said in a news conference Sunday. “If you don’t have an approved accommodation, we expect to see you back in class. Those who do not report to work…we will have to take action. Let’s avoid that.”
CPS officials said over the weekend that if teachers did not return to schools on Monday, they would be considered “absent without leave” and would not be authorized to conduct remote learning until they report back to their classrooms.
At a virtual press conference late Sunday, CTU leadership said outstanding issues include a clear vaccination process and a health metric for teachers' coronavirus concerns.
"People's lives... depend on us reaching a maximum amount of safety in the middle of a pandemic," said Stacy Davis Gates, CTU's vice president.
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.