The Chicago Teachers Union is calling for mediation as the battle over a return to in-person learning takes another turn Tuesday.
The union said negotiations hit a standstill as the district continues to push for a return to classrooms for teachers and students Feb. 1, but the union wants to hold off until teachers can receive the coronavirus vaccination.
"We are willing to keep teaching, but CPS has said they will lock us out," CTU President Jesse Sharkey said in a statement. "We are willing to keep negotiating, but CPS has refused to back down from insisting that 80% of educators and support staff person in every elementary school be back in class on Feb. 1 to serve less than 20% of the students. Another 10,000 of our members became eligible for vaccinations on Jan. 25. We can make schools safe with a phased reopening and enhanced COVID-19 testing for members of school communities."
Kindergarten through eighth grade teachers were scheduled to return to schools on Monday, but the district pushed that date to Wednesday after the Chicago Teachers Union voted to not return to classrooms until after vaccinations.
An estimated 71,000 students are slated to return to classrooms on Feb. 1, a date CPS said it is still aiming to keep.
In a letter sent to parents on Tuesday evening, CPS officials asked that parents keep children at home as a result of the union's vote to keep teachers remote, which took place over the weekend.
“For the past three weeks, thousands of CPS students have been safely learning in person, and the union’s action will prevent these students from receiving the classroom support their parents needed and chose,” CPS said in a statement. “While we are greatly concerned for our youngest and highest-need students, who are suddenly without a safe, in-person learning option, we are continuing to make all possible efforts to reach an agreement that addresses the union’s priorities and provides families a much-needed resolution.”
The union called the district's latest proposal, which has thousands of teachers and students back in classrooms at the start of next month "both unsafe and unacceptable."
"CPS has said they will only mediate if we consent that they can walk anytime they want and have no obligation to work out compromises," Sharkey said in a statement. "We would hope that the leaders of our city could show more commitment to our educators, students and schools than that."
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot denied that claim, however, saying "we're all for it" when asked Tuesday if the district was open to mediation.
"We're at the table, we will continue to be at the table, we want to get something done," she said.
CTU on Sunday voted to authorize all rank-and-file educators to continue remote learning this week, a statement from the union said. CTU said 86% of its members participated in the vote, with 71% voting to continue remote learning.
The district has argued in recent days that a return to classrooms is necessary for some students and families.
"We must provide families, through no fault of their own, have been unable to make remote learning work for their children," CPS said in a letter earlier this week. "We've seen grades, attendance and enrollment drop significantly for many of our students in recent months, and the impact has been felt most by our Black and Latinx students."
After the union's House of Delegates voted last week to authorize all members to conduct remote work only, CPS said that remaining out of schools would be a "decision to strike" and in violation of their collective bargaining agreement.
The union disagrees with that assertion, saying that its vote announced Sunday was based on "unsafe" working conditions and that it isn't tantamount to a work stoppage, since teachers would still be working remotely.
A limited number of students in pre-K and special needs classes returned to the classroom in recent weeks as both the union and district remain embroiled in the debate over resuming in-person instruction.
District officials on Friday announced a plan to vaccinate staff members in the next phase of the city's vaccination plan, as the district prepares to bring thousands of teachers and students back into classrooms.
CPS expects to begin receiving vaccines in mid-February, the district said, and will begin to distribute doses to employees at that time through school-based sites. The district noted that staff who are eligible to get vaccinated in Phase 1B, which began Monday, can set up their own appointments through their health care provider or pharmacy.
CPS also said it has launched partnerships with health care organizations to vaccinate approximately 1,500 staff members in health care roles, who have been eligible to receive the vaccine under the current Phase 1A, over the next two weeks.
The district noted that it has created a "prioritization system" for the order in which staff will be able to get vaccinated. That strategy was developed "based on the level of exposure to others and ability to reliably maintain mitigation measures, as well as the amount of time the specific role has been serving in-person during the closure," CPS said. Elementary school teachers are included in Group 2 of the district's plan.