By Tracy Swartz Chicago Tribune

Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union are at “an impasse” in negotiations over the fall reopening of schools with less than two weeks until students return for in-person learning, CTU President Jesse Sharkey said Wednesday.

“We are beginning without a comprehensive reopening agreement. This is a real problem. 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 at a morning rally outside Benito Juarez Community Academy in Pilsen as school clerks returned to buildings citywide Wednesday.ADVERTISING

“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.”

CPS is planning to welcome students back for in-person learning five days a week beginning Aug. 30. The start of school comes amid an uptick in coronavirus cases because of the highly contagious delta variant. The average number of new daily COVID-19 cases in Chicago this week topped 400, which was the metric the city and CPS officials cited a year ago when they announced they would start the 2020-21 school year with all remote learning.

CPS leaders have been emphasizing schools will reopen this month with various safety plans in place. CTU says many of the measures don’t go far enough — but “right now, we’re saying we’re going back into buildings,” Sharkey said.

“If they’re within a cohort … outside, then we’re going to allow them not to wear the mask. If there’s any possibility of cohorts mixing, then we would have to have them wear the mask,” Dr. Kenneth Fox said.

Students will be kept 3 feet apart wherever possible, a change from the 6 feet of social distancing standard that CTU is asking for again.

“It was clear that we could make the shift from 6 to 3 (feet) without paying much of a price for it. The first priority, however, is that all students get back to in-person learning,” Fox said. “That’s why the other layers of protection are so important, that we have multiple, multiple layers to protect us. 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 is requiring teachers and other employees get vaccinated, unless they receive an exemption for religious or medical reasons. The district says it is also committed to offering free weekly coronavirus tests to all students and staff.

Student athletes in grades 5 to 12 will be required to submit proof of vaccination or participate in weekly testing during their sports season.

If a COVID-19 case is found in a school, Fox said CPS’s 24-person contact tracing team investigates the case through a phone interview. The infected person is told to isolate, and any unvaccinated close contacts are directed to quarantine. One area of disagreement is that CTU wants vaccinated people who came in contact with the COVID-positive person to quarantine as well.

Quarantined students will engage in remote learning temporarily, interim CPS CEO José Torres said at Tuesday’s virtual town hall.

“As we’ve said before, those students who are not vaccinated who test positive will be maybe quarantined for 14 days, based on CDC guidelines. And within, I believe, 24 to 48 hours, we will institute some remote learning opportunities for those students, following the Illinois State Board of Education guidelines,” Torres said without detailing these remote-learning plans. Sharkey said more staff, such as teacher’s assistants, should be hired to handle extra remote-teaching responsibilities.

Some parents have called on the district to offer full remote-learning programs beyond the Virtual Academy for “medically fragile” students, but Torres noted the state is requiring in-person learning for this school year.

Sharkey said the state should consider allowing remote learning for everyone, especially in the wake of the delta variant. Some schools around the country have opened their doors for in-person learning only to quickly close them again because of coronavirus outbreaks.

“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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