Chicago mayor cites `tentative agreement' to reopen schools

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot says a “tentative agreement” has been reached with the teachers union over COVID-19 safety protocols, potentially averting a strike in the nation’s third-largest school district

Virus Outbreak Chicago Schools
Virus Outbreak Chicago Schools

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Sunday that a “tentative agreement” has been reached with the teachers union over COVID-19 safety protocols, potentially averting a strike in the nation’s third-largest school district.

The possible deal which still requires approval by the Chicago Teachers Union, would allow some students to return to schools as early as Thursday, with the reopening of classes being phased-in by grade. The city would vaccinate 1,500 teachers and staff weekly at sites dedicated to Chicago Public Schools The agreement also includes metrics that would trigger school closings when cases spike.

The union and district have been fighting for months over a plan to gradually reopen the roughly 340,000-student district, with talks breaking down in recent days.

“This agreement was about making sure everyone in our school communities just aren’t safe, but also that they feel safe,” Lightfoot said at a news conference.

While Lightfoot touted it as a “tentative agreement," the union said the district's latest offer that came Saturday night required further review.

“We do not yet have an agreement with Chicago Public Schools,” CTU tweeted on Sunday. “We will continue with our democratic process of rank-and-file review throughout the day before any agreement is reached.”

It was unclear when the union would begin voting. The union's house of delegates would have to decide whether to send the proposal to the roughly 25,000 members for approval.

A union spokeswoman declined to comment further.

CPS officials have said opening schools is safe and that remote learning isn’t working for all students, including many Black and Latino students who make up the majority of the district. Union officials had argued that the district’s plan, which included air filters in classrooms and voluntary COVID-19 tests for teachers, didn’t go far enough

Under the proposal, teachers and students in pre-K and special education would return in the first wave starting Thursday. Students in K-5 would return March 1, and students in grades 6-8 would return March 8. No date was given for high school students, who would continue remote learning until further notice.

Illinois rolled out its latest vaccination phase last month that includes teachers, though supplies have been limited. City officials said Sunday that the 1,500 weekly vaccine doses for teachers would be prioritized by those who are older, higher risk and live or work in ZIP codes with the highest coronavirus positivity rates.

Pre-K and special education students briefly returned last month, but then stopped amid the escalating fight with the union, which voted to continue remote teaching and reject the district’s plans. Teachers and students in K-8 were supposed to return Feb. 1. for the first time since going fully remote last March. The district had offered K-8 students two days of in-person instruction.

The union had said that if the district locked out teachers, as it has done previously, teachers would picket. Such a move would have cut off virtual learning for all students. The union last went on strike in 2019.

About 77,000 students from pre-K to 8 expressed interest in returning to class in a December survey. While pre-K and some special education students were offered in-person classes five days a week, students in K-8 were offered two days a week of in-person instruction with remote class on other days.

Attendance has been lower than expected.

Roughly 6,500 of the nearly 17,000 eligible preschool and special education students said they’d like to return, but only about 3,200, or 19% of those eligible, attended after the January reopening, CPS said.

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Follow Sophia Tareen on Twitter: https://twitter.com/sophiatareen.

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