Chicago Teachers Union claims ‘impasse’ over COVID-19 school reopenings

Chicago Teachers Union claims ‘impasse’ over COVID-19 school reopenings

The CTU president said there was an impasse, with union leaders and Chicago Public Schools administrators divided on quarantine policies and remote learning options for students. School administrators said the union is ‘rejecting the science for their own gain.’

Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union have reached an “impasse” in negotiations over reopening schools that the union initially indicated could threaten students’ return to the classroom Aug. 30.

But later on Aug. 18 the union president, Jesse Sharkey, softened his rhetoric.

“Right now, we’re saying we’re going back into buildings,” Sharkey said.

The dispute over safety protocol efficacy for students planning a return to CPS schools in less than two weeks was sparked as Chicago reports a resurgence in new daily COVID-19 cases and city leaders are reimposing public space mask mandates. While CPS administrators have emphasized classes will resume in-person this month with various safety plans in place, Sharkey said the district reopening strategy falls short of union standards.

“So far the city has not been willing to agree to metrics, which would close schools and keep us safe if this surge continues,” Sharkey said Aug. 18 at a rally outside a school.

“They’re trying to cut social distancing in half. They’re trying to cut a number of other provisions, which we had in place last spring. And they’re not willing to make those commitments, and we’re not willing to sign an agreement without those commitments. So we have an impasse.”

The current dispute is the third time CPS and CTU representatives have negotiated in the past nine months over how to safely resume classes this fall.

CPS in March established plans for students to return to schools for in-person learning five days a week starting Aug. 30. The union has called that plan into question as Chicago reports an uptick in coronavirus cases driven by the Delta variant.

As cases continue to trend upwards, CTU leaders are calling on CPS to reimpose the strictest protocols from last spring around quarantining and pushing a potential return to remote schooling.

But the district argues these further mitigations contradict the science union leaders have purported to follow since the pandemic began.

“All of the district’s health and safety protocols are in alignment with the health and safety guidelines recommended by the CDC, IDPH and CDPH, and in some cases go beyond them,” CPS spokesman James Gherardi said in a statement.

“It is disappointing that the CTU is rejecting science for their own gain and continues to second-guess health experts and express their own unscientific opinions about health-related matters. The CTU appears to be committed to spreading doubt instead of preparing for the upcoming school year after the past year’s immense disruption to learning.”

In line with Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s school mask mandate, CPS will require students and educators to wear masks indoors when returning to schools, regardless of vaccination status.

CPS’ chief health officer, Dr. Kenneth Fox, suggested Aug. 17 the mandate could extend beyond the classroom for some elementary students – the majority of whom are ineligible for vaccination – during outside activities such as recess.

CPS will also mandate students be kept 3-feet apart whenever possible, following updated CDC guidance from March that was later approved by the Illinois State Board of Education.

“That’s why the other layers of protection are so important, that we have multiple, multiple layers to protect us,” Fox said. “Social distancing of 3 feet in schools is OK, according to the (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), and so that’s what we’re going with.”

CPS schools are requiring teachers and other employees get vaccinated, unless given an exemption for religious or medical reasons. The district has further committed to offering free weekly COVID-19 testing for all students and staff.

To prevent the spread of the coronavirus between school campuses, student athletes in grades 5 to 12 will be required to take weekly tests during their sport season or submit proof of vaccination.

Fox said any individuals identified as positive for the coronavirus will interview with CPS’ 24-person contact tracing team over the phone. The infected individual and any unvaccinated persons who came in close contact will then be told to quarantine and offered a temporary remote learning option.

The union wants even vaccinated people who were in close contact with an infected person to quarantine as well.

Sharkey suggested CPS should hire more staff, such as teacher’s assistants, to handle the extra influx of remote learners. This request comes after CPS passed a budget that would hire 2,000 new permanent educators this year, despite concerns that CPS could see 100,000 fewer students enrolled in the district when classes resume.

While Sharkey said he supports educators’ return to schools for now, he warned the union will be forced to act if district administrators fail to do what is “right.”

“The district isn’t willing to commit to the things that we think we need. We’re not willing to sign an agreement that doesn’t have those commitments in it,” Sharkey said.

“So at this point what I think I would have to say is, that if we go back in and there’s a dangerous surge, we would count on the mayor and the district to do the right thing. And if they don’t, we’ll take matters into our own hands.”

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