Returning to school: What Illinois parents, teachers, school boards need to know

Mailee Smith

Staff Attorney and Director of Labor Policy

Mailee Smith
January 8, 2021

Returning to school: What Illinois parents, teachers, school boards need to know

Illinois students are returning to school, but some unions are scaring teachers about their safety in the classroom. The science doesn’t support those fears, and the law may put teachers at odds with union demands.

Some of Illinois’ largest teacher unions have demanded school districts continue or return to remote learning – a demand that pulls many public school teachers in two directions, leaving them in a bad position.

The Chicago Teachers Union has gone so far as to encourage its members to “take action” against Chicago Public Schools’ plan to re-open school buildings and to push local resolutions “vowing to stay remote.”

That decision could lead to discipline of those who refuse to report to school. It could even cost them their jobs.

Here are four things to know about the science and the law regarding unions pushing teachers to refuse to report to work.

Unions and their members cannot go on strike when there is a collective bargaining agreement in place.

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.

The Illinois law governing the relationship between unions and educational employers does not define the term “strike.” While refusing to report to work may not be termed an official “strike,” it certainly would look like one – especially if the teachers’ union orchestrates the refusal.

It’s a gray area that likely would require resolution by the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board.

But by that time, the action may have already occurred, making it too late for teachers to change their minds. And that should give teachers pause before deciding not to report to school.

Teachers who engage in illegal strikes can be disciplined by their districts.

Should the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board determine that a union and its members have engaged in an illegal strike, Illinois labor law offers no protection for those teachers who participated.

That means teachers could be disciplined according to school district policies, such as provisions for docking pay of employees who fail to show up to work. For example, Chicago Public Schools teachers who continue staying home rather than reporting to their buildings when required will be subject to the district’s progressive discipline policy, according to CPS CEO Janice Jackson. 

There is little legal or scientific support for a safety strike

Illinois government unions have argued in the past they can strike if an unfair labor practice occurs, such as being forced to work in unsafe conditions.

While that may be true under federal law, state law governs teachers unions. And there is nothing in the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act that allows a teachers union to strike over an unfair labor practice while under contract.

In recent months, the labor board has twice denied a request by the CTU to stop Chicago schools from opening in January. That doesn’t bode well for other unions thinking about walking out or refusing to work.

What’s more, the unions have little scientific or health data to support the refusal to work.

“New information tells us that opening schools does not significantly increase community transmission of [COVID-19], however it is critical for schools to closely follow guidance provided by public health officials,” according to Dr. Lee Beers, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

For example, a UNICEF report reviewing evidence in 191 countries found “no consistent association between school reopening status and COVID-19 infection rates.”

There is also evidence coming out of Chicago itself, where 90-plus Catholic schools – which educate approximately 20,000 students – have not seen any significant outbreaks since starting school in-person last fall.

In sum, neither the law nor science appear to justify a strike over COVID-19 safety concerns at present.

Illinois teachers have other options

Many teachers are in a difficult position: defy the union and face potential punishment by union leadership, or defy the school district and face potential discipline by the district.

But Illinois teachers do have another option.

Teachers can return to school and avoid union punishment by opting out of union membership. They can then join another professional support organization, such as the Association of American Educators, which offers liability insurance and job protection coverage at a fraction of the cost of union membership.

Teachers who opt out are still guaranteed all of the benefits provided by their employers in the collective bargaining agreement, such as salary and raises, health insurance, pension benefits, vacation days and holidays, overtime pay, seniority and leaves of absence, including sick leave.

For more information about opting out, visit one of the following websites:

  • Teachers represented by the Illinois Education Association: leaveiea.com
  • Teachers represented by the Illinois Federation of Teachers: leaveift.com
  • Teachers represented by the Chicago Teachers Union: leavectu.com.

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