Chicago Public Schools announced Monday that teachers would not be locked out of their virtual classrooms, as the district initially warned, while negotiations with the Chicago Teachers Union continue.
CPS called for a 48-hour "cooling off period" Monday night, noting that the two sides had made progress in discussions surrounding a return to in-person learning.
“We have reached another important milestone today in our efforts to provide in-person learning for our students in the Chicago Public Schools system," Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS Director Dr. Janice Jackson said in a statement Monday. "We have secured agreement on one other open issue and made substantial progress on a framework that we hope will address the remaining issues. We are calling for a 48-hour cooling off period that will hopefully lead to a final resolution on all open issues."
Students will continue to have remote learning on Tuesday and Wednesday, the district said.
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.
CPS said that would constitute an "illegal strike" and Lightfoot warned 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.”
Amid the often tense negotiations, teachers voted in January to go back to remote-learning, even with pre-K and cluster learning students already back in classrooms. That vote was cast in response to CPS calling for teachers to return to K-8 classrooms on Jan. 25, with those students returning to those classrooms on Feb. 1.
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.
Both sides pointed fingers in a series of social media posts earlier Sunday, with CTU officials saying that Lightfoot and CPS leadership told them “not to attend” negotiations unless rank-and-file members of the union were prepared to make “major concessions.”
In response, CPS said that their bargaining team was “told by CTU leadership that they were unavailable to meet until they could develop a response to our most recent offer.”
CTU responded to that assertion by criticizing Lightfoot for “referring to the ‘hyper-democratic’ nature of CTU” in a negative light, and that the union is looking to its rank-and-file members for leadership during the current impasse.
The news came after both sides had reported progress in negotiations over the weekend. The two sides have been debating the safety of teachers and students returning to classrooms amid the ongoing pandemic for months, with issues surrounding vaccinations, metrics and safety procedures all on the negotiating table.
Lightfoot insists that the CPS plan to return to schools 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.
Lightfoot appeared on "Morning Joe" Monday to make that claim and again turn blame on the union.
"We've invested over $100 million in ventilation, other safety protocols, making sure that we have masks, safety health screening, temperature checks, all the things that you would expect, that the CDC guidance has told us, that we know make sense to mitigate any issues in schools," she said.
"We've had three weeks of safely implementing our plan until the teachers union blew it up," Lightfoot continued. "We are doing everything that we can to address what the teachers are expressing to us, but we need them to meet us halfway. As you all know, you've got to take steps in each other's direction. There's got to be compromise."