By Hannah Leone Chicago Tribune

The Chicago Teachers Union is asking Chicago Public Schools to delay reopening high schools and provide vaccines to eligible students and families, even as the two sides attempt to negotiate an agreement to bring high school students back later this month.

CPS has set a target return date of April 19 for high school students, who have been learning remotely for more than a year.

Students wait to be checked in before entering Abraham Lincoln Elementary School on March 1, when Chicago Public Schools opened for students in kindergarten through fifth grade. CPS high schools have yet to reopen.
Students wait to be checked in before entering Abraham Lincoln Elementary School on March 1, when Chicago Public Schools opened for students in kindergarten through fifth grade. CPS high schools have yet to reopen. (Raquel Zaldivar / Chicago Tribune)

Referencing newer COVID-19 variants and increasing case counts in cities including Chicago, CTU President Jesse Sharkey said that the union is concerned about the virus’ spread and wants CPS to hold off on bringing more students back.

“We have asked the district to delay reopening school for students by a week in order to bargain with us about a safe return, in order to make sure we are not in fact at the very opening stages of a dangerous surge,” he said.

CPS officials did not immediately respond Wednesday morning.

The potential for an agreement does not mean an end is in sight, and Sharkey said he foresaw more points of tension around the start of next school year and a significant number of students continuing to stay home.

“We’re in a different bargaining situation than one we’ve ever been in. … It’s continuous bargaining,” Sharkey said during a negotiations update late Tuesday, noting the union and CPS reached an agreement through bargaining for the resumption of in-person classes for pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, “and now we’re bargaining reopening the high schools.”

“But,” he added, “this is only the latest crisis point … in what’s going to be a whole series of these issues.”

The union’s latest push implores the district to provide vaccines for high school students and their relatives.

Union representatives also detailed some of their outstanding demands, including improvements to remote learning, modified high school schedules and remote work accommodations for members with medical conditions or medically vulnerable family members.

CTU lawyer Thad Goodchild said the district confirmed this week that all pregnant and nursing members would have their telework requests approved for the fourth quarter, but that eligibility would likely narrow from the third quarter because so many educators have been getting vaccines.

The union framed its concerns with a statement issued Tuesday: “COVID cases are again going up in Chicago and across the nation. Yet Mayor Lightfoot has held off on vaccinating residents aged 16 and up, even as the state has opened up vaccinations for young people, the age group currently most impacting COVID spread and infection. At the same time, national health experts are raising concerns about the push to reopen schools, bars and other businesses as new variants drive a spike in cases.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Tuesday that Chicago will expand COVID-19 vaccine eligibility to all U.S. adults by April 19, but called for more vaccines to be provided to the city. Vaccines are now available to everyone 16 and older in more than 80 of Illinois’ 102 counties.

Also Tuesday, Illinois officials reported 2,931 new confirmed and probable cases of COVID-19 and 13 deaths. Based on a seven-day rolling average, Chicago’s daily case count was 606 and the city’s positivity rate was 5.2%, up from 4.4% a week ago.

Sharkey also noted the more complicated scheduling challenges that come with reopening high schools.

“I think that one of the biggest issues that we’ve been bargaining about is the question of high school schedules,” Sharkey said. “It’s very difficult to put high school students in pods. The way to keep people safe is to ensure social distancing, and the best way to do that is to make sure there aren’t many students coming back to school on a given day.”

Sharkey said he anticipates most high schools will begin with a hybrid schedule, where students two days per week in school, similar to the model in use at most elementary schools.

At last month’s Chicago Board of Education meeting, Deputy Chief of High Schools Erick Pruitt presented three primary models for high schools to follow, depending on enrollment, the percentage of students opting in and the building’s capacity for social distancing. He said that each school’s model should keep its current schedule and allow students to stick with their teachers.

One model would have each student in person four days a week; the second would be two days a week, with two shifts of students; and the third would have each group of students in person only one day a week.

Sharkey said the district had informed the union that no schools would be following the one-day model, and questioned whether that was right.

Ashley Kiddle, a teacher at Roberto Clemente Community Academy, said members are still trying to bargain over allowing staff to work remotely on days they don’t have students in person.

“We’ve been talking about the need to limit exposure for adults and children. … There’s no need to have all of the staff in the building,” Kiddle said.

Taft High School teacher Eden McCauslin likened the district’s plan for in-person instruction to “babysitting” and predicted that by June, many teachers would face empty classrooms because “students are not going to be interested in any of these models. They are not conducive to learning.”

“We all recognize this is the next logical step. We need to be opening up the high schools,” McCauslin said. “… We need to do this in a smart way and not waste anybody’s time.”

The district’s reliance on miscellaneous workers to fill staffing holes is a problem, said CTU recording secretary Christel Williams-Hayes.

Williams-Hayes said the union is interested in helping and organizing these employees, who are typically paid $15 an hour and are not eligible for benefits.

“Miscellaneous workers should not be a replacement for school clerks. Miscellaneous workers should not be a replacement for teacher assistants or student advocacy — any position that is in a job category in our contract,” Williams-Hayes.

Sharkey said the union is committed to getting ideas from members about what supports they need, bringing those to the bargaining table. Absent an agreement, he said, the union is prepared “to be escalating actions” and applying pressure to CPS and the Chicago Board of Education.

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