Chicago Public Schools

Lightfoot: City is Considering Legal Action Against Teachers' Union in COVID Policy Standoff

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As a standoff continues between Chicago Public Schools and teachers over COVID safety protocols, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced that the city has filed an unfair labor practices complaint over a union vote to switch to remote learning.

The mayor made the announcement during a press conference Wednesday, saying that while the city would prefer to reach an agreement with teachers to get them back into classrooms, that they are considering all options.

“We have taken some action in that direction,” she said. “We’d rather resolve this at the bargaining table. We are considering all of our options, and we’ll make a determination shortly as to what levers we’re going to pull, depending on whether or not we make significant progress at the bargaining table.”

Lightfoot’s comments come as CPS canceled classes for a second consecutive day. The move follows a vote by the Chicago Teachers Union to switch back to remote learning, a decision that Lightfoot has called an “illegal work stoppage” in multiple press conferences.

The union says that members were locked out of email and other accounts, and they were prevented from logging into online learning systems after Tuesday’s vote.

CPS officials have repeatedly said that they do not view a return to full remote learning as necessary, even with a surge in COVID cases caused by the omicron variant, and that they prefer a targeted approach to the strategy.

Pedro Martinez, the CEO of CPS, said that approximately 84% of teachers showed up to work on Monday for the resumption of classes after the winter break, but that only 10% of teachers showed up after the vote to switch to remote learning on Tuesday.

He said that while no official plan has yet been made for Friday, he said that some schools may resume in-person learning on that date depending on staffing.

“Some schools have enough staff reporting to work to return to in-person instruction as soon as Friday,” the CPS said in a letter published by the Chicago Tribune. “Other schools have more limited capacity, and may provide learning packets and other materials for students to use during this illegal work stoppage.”

Martinez did say that the district is working on a remote learning plan, but it’s unclear when it would need to be implemented, and he also said that teachers will have to return to buildings to collect materials to craft learning plans.

He said that under state law, any remote learning would have to come out of “emergency days” unless a public health emergency were declared by the city. Any other remote learning days would have to be made up at the end of the school year once those “emergency days” were exhausted.

In a tweet following the vote Tuesday, in which 73% of rank-and-file members voted in favor of returning to remote learning, the union said that it will call for teachers to return to classrooms under the following conditions:

-The current surge in COVID cases substantially subsides, OR

-The mayor's team at CPS signs an agreement establishing conditions for return that are voted on and approved by the CTU House of Delegates.

The mayor likened the stalemate in negotiations over a new safety agreement to the film “Groundhog Day."

“It feels like Groundhog Day, that we’re here again, at this hour, after everything we’ve gone through in the last two years with CTU leadership,” she said.

The mayor, in a late Tuesday press conference, said that Martinez asked CTU President Jesse Sharkey to delay the vote so that CPS officials could present new frameworks for a safety plan, and Lightfoot said that the request was rejected.

Prior to the vote, Lightfoot criticized the move as an “illegal work stoppage,” and said that she wanted to focus on working together to reach a safety agreement.

“The worst thing we can do is to shut the entire system down. What we need to be focused on is working together,” she said. “What I’d love to see CTU do is not force an illegal work stoppage. What I’d love to see them do is work hand-in-glove with us to get kids and their families vaccinated.”

The teachers' union has cited rising numbers of COVID cases among both students and teachers as part of the reason they are seeking a temporary switch to remote learning, while also criticizing CPS for not providing adequate testing and improved masking, along with other mitigations, in the wake of the omicron surge.

CTU leaders have argued that the current surge is making teachers and students more vulnerable, and that the district has already botched safety protocols, including a holiday testing program and data collection.

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