CHICAGO — Leaders of Chicago's teachers union have accepted the terms of a tentative agreement sent from Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration Monday night that would reopen the nation’s third-largest public school system later this week.
Though the deal needs to be approved by the broader union membership, the news marks an enormous step to resume school after four days of canceled classes in Chicago and a heated national debate about the safety of bringing students back to campuses during an Omicron-driven wave of Covid-19 cases.
In dueling nighttime press conferences, both the mayor and Chicago Teachers Union officials held their ground even as both sides made accommodations that allow for remote learning on a school-by-school basis. The district also agreed to supply more KN95 masks for staff and students, something the union had been calling for.
“No one's more frustrated than I am,” Lightfoot said in a Monday night press conference. “This was not necessary to happen. And I'm glad that we're hopefully putting this behind us, and looking forward, but there does come a point where enough is enough … I’m hopeful that this is the end, at least for this school year.”
The potential agreement would have the labor group’s members return to schools beginning Tuesday, according to an outline of the proposal, though in-person classes would not begin until Wednesday.
Despite the latest breakthrough in the negotiations, Chicago Teachers Union officials were still furious with the mayor.
“This mayor is unfit to lead our city. She’s on a one-woman kamikaze mission to destroy our public schools,” CTU vice president Stacy Davis Gates said in a separate Monday night press conference. “This should have never gotten this far. We had to go on a remote action for face covering in the middle of a pandemic. We had to go on a remote action to get more testing in the middle of a pandemic. She fought us every step of the way.”
The White House has insisted that schools remain open during the Covid surge. But districts nationwide have faced a challenging start to January as unprecedented numbers of teachers and staff test positive and leave campuses shorthanded. Just as airlines canceled flights last month and restaurants have temporarily closed because they lack healthy employees, some districts are shutting schools because they don’t have enough teachers as Omicron spreads rapidly.
Most closures have been by administrative decision, however, not labor action. Lightfoot and CTU have had an unusually acrimonious relationship during the pandemic that underpinned Chicago’s shutdown.
According to union and administration sources, two main issues that have slowed negotiations are determining the extent of testing — whether parents can opt-in or opt-out of having their children tested in school — and a blueprint on how to close down individual schools and pivot to remote learning in case of a Covid-19 outbreak.
The pending deal would commit the school system to secure the resources needed to test at least 10 percent of a randomly-selected group of students for Covid-19 at each school on a weekly basis. Students would have to consent to participate in testing, and school staff including nurses would be assigned to help increase the district’s testing capacity.
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