Chicago Public Schools

Karen Lewis' Legacy on Many Minds as CTU Discusses Potential Return to Classrooms

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The Chicago Teachers Union’s House of Delegates met Monday to discuss plans to return Chicago Public Schools students to in-person learning, setting the stage for a potential vote to end a showdown that has gone on through much of the new year.

After more than 80 meetings to discuss how to reopen schools during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, CPS officials say they’ve reached a tentative agreement with the CTU to allow the 20% of students who opted to return to in-person learning to come back to classrooms.

CTU officials have been careful not to say that there has been an agreement reached, saying that it is up to the rank-and-file members of the union to determine whether the current proposal makes the grade.

“The decision on whether this agreement moves forward is that of the union, and I hope that when CTU members are thinking about that and discussing that, that they understand that it is a very conscious strategy on the part of our union,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who has played an instrumental role in negotiations, said that she’s hopeful that the union’s membership will vote to accept the proposal, which would allow students in pre-K and cluster learning environments to return to classrooms as soon as Thursday.

“My hope is obviously since we’ve crossed so many rivers to get to this point that we will be able to move forward,” she said.

The plan calls for students in kindergarten through fifth grade to return to classrooms on March 1. Students in sixth through eighth grades would return to classrooms on March 8, with teachers reporting back to schools the week before that.

In order for the agreement to pass, it must first be ratified by the CTU House of Delegates. The union’s rank-and-file members would then have to approve the measure, which they would do through virtual voting.

Union members and leadership are conducting their deliberations and potential voting in the shadow of former President Karen Lewis, who passed away on Monday after a long battle with cancer.

Sharkey says that Lewis’ legacy is heavy on the minds of many union officials, and that her words have helped to guide his approach to the negotiations.

“Karen used to say ‘does it make us stronger? Does it unify us? Does it build our power?’” Sharkey recalled.

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