Chicago teachers refusing to return to school face discipline, up to firing

Mailee Smith

Senior Director of Labor Policy and Staff Attorney

Mailee Smith
January 8, 2021

Chicago teachers refusing to return to school face discipline, up to firing

The Chicago Teachers Union is encouraging Chicago Public School teachers to “take action” against the school district, but the union’s agenda risks teachers’ jobs without backing by science or law.

Chicago Public Schools students haven’t been in a classroom for 10 months. Pre-kindergarten and some special education students are slated to return Jan. 11, with elementary students returning Feb. 1.

But conflicts between the district and the union representing teachers are further jeopardizing their educations.

Approximately 5,000 CPS teachers were set to return to their buildings Jan. 4 to prepare for the Jan. 11 return of pre-kindergarten and special education students. But half stayed home amid claims by the Chicago Teachers Union that schools weren’t safe.

In fact, CTU encouraged its members to “take action” against CPS’s plan to re-open schools and push local school councils to pass resolutions “vowing to stay remote.” What’s more, CTU hasn’t ruled out the possibility of a strike.

But abiding by the union’s agenda and refusing to come to school carries significant risks for teachers, and it could be more than just their paychecks on the line.

Under Illinois labor law, public school teachers and staff cannot engage in a strike when there is a current collective bargaining agreement in place. Striking while under contract is considered an illegal strike. A contract is indeed in placebetween CPS and CTU.

And while the union hasn’t called their actions an official “strike,” it certainly looks like one, with 49.7% of scheduled teachers refusing to show up after the union urged them to “take action” against the district and “vow” to stay remote until the union deems it safe to return. At the very least, whether the refusal constitutes a strike is a gray area that likely would require resolution by the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board. By then, any actions the union and its members have taken already would have occurred.

Notably, Illinois’ labor laws offer no protection to teachers who engage in illegal strikes.

CPS CEO Janice Jackson has stated teachers who continue staying home will be subject to the district’s progressive discipline policy.

While there is a general labor law exception for strikes specifically related to safety issues, CTU has neither the science nor the law to support a refusal to report to work.

First, CPS has laid out health data supporting its move to reopen schools. For example, a UNICEF report reviewing evidence in 191 countries found “there is no consistent association between school reopening status and COVID-19 infection rates in communities [where standard mitigation strategies are deployed],” as cited in a letter to Chicago aldermen from Jackson. She also highlighted a Yale Daycare Study finding “no association between contracting the virus and exposure to child care as a worker.”

What’s more, Chicago already meets the metric health officials put in place for school reopenings. And as outlined in Jackson’s letter, the 90-plus local Catholic parochial schools – which educate approximately 20,000 students – have not seen any significant outbreaks since starting school in-person last fall.

As such, CTU has neither international nor local health data to support its insistence on continuing remote schooling.

Second, the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board has twice denied CTU’s requests to stop CPS from opening in January.

That’s not a good track record for CTU, and it certainly doesn’t bode well should CPS file a complaint against the union with the labor board.

Difficult as the decision may seem for many teachers, it is one of the union’s own making. By refusing to acknowledge the scientific data and the success other schools have had in re-opening – including those in the Chicago area – CTU has instilled a culture of panic, with teachers unnecessarily fearing for their own lives.

The blame falls squarely on CTU for making teachers think they have to choose between their lives and their jobs.

If you are a CTU member who does not support the union’s agenda, you have options. You can opt out of the union and join another professional support organization, such as the Association of American Educators.

For more information about opting out, visit

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