School & District Management

Chicago Mayor Says Citywide Teacher Walkout Would Be ‘Catastrophic’

By Katherine Rosenberg-Douglas — February 01, 2021 6 min read
Teachers Adrienne Thomas, left, and Irene Barrera, right, set up their computers and materials for their virtual classes outside of Suder Montessori Magnet Elementary School in solidarity with pre-K educators forced back into the building in Chicago on Jan. 11, 2021.

Instead of welcoming tens of thousands of students back to in-person classes for the first time since March, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot Monday morning gave a televised interview on the evolving negotiations with union officials after the sides failed to secure a deal this weekend.

Schools had been slated to reopen for more than 60,000 kindergarten through eighth grade students Monday, joining about 6,500 preschool and special education students who started attending in-person on Jan. 11.

But Chicago Public Schools pulled the plug late Sunday when it became increasingly clear teachers would continue to refuse to return en masse, despite the hard line Lightfoot and district CEO Janice Jackson have been toeing for weeks, threatening to lock educators out of their remote teaching platforms if they won’t show up in person.

“Let me be very clear: Our schools are safe. We’ve invested over $100 million dollars in ventilation, other safety protocols, making sure that we have masks, safety health screening, temperature checks — all the things that you would expect that the CDC guidance has told us that we know makes sense to mitigate any issues in schools. We’ve looked at and followed every study across the globe, including here in Chicago, by our local experts,” Lightfoot said to MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” co-host Mika Brzezinski.

“We’ve had three weeks of safely implementing our plan until the teachers union blew it up,” Lightfoot added.

The resumption of in-person classes for pre-kindergarten to eighth grade has now been pushed back one day to Tuesday. But whether that can happen remains uncertain.

Jackson said Sunday that educators who don’t report for work in person Monday will be locked out of their district accounts at end of the business day. If “mass lockouts” happen Monday, according to a Chicago Teachers Union bulletin sent to members late Sunday, the union will call a meeting of its House of Delegates, which “must officially set a date for a strike to begin.”

The union bulletin accused the mayor and Jackson of having “trouble telling the truth publicly,” and urged teachers not to believe anything they hear that doesn’t come from the union.

“CPS never showed up at bargaining Sunday,” the union said after Lightfoot claimed it was the CTU that was absent. “After hours of waiting, CTU leadership was told the CPS team would not come to bargaining unless we made massive concessions: on CDC health metrics; on vaccinations; on giving time for vaccination before reopening; and accommodations for over 2,000 members who have medically vulnerable people in their households,” according to the email.

It continued: “That is not only unacceptable, that is outrageous. We don’t want a strike.”

A union representative said remote instruction was underway Monday without issue: “No reports of lock-outs. Yet.”

In another show of solidarity with teachers, a “sick-out,” where parents were encouraged to call in sick days for their children Monday, appeared to have gained some momentum.

“Good morning, Chicago!” one parent posted on Facebook. “Today is the day CPS parents are keeping kids out of class (remote and in-person) for the #CPSSickOut. Why? Because our families are SICK and tired of this failed CPS reopening plan. There has been no parent voice in decision-making.”

While other parents have organized in favor of resuming in-person learning for children whose parents choose it, as CPS intends to do, families in support of the sick-out were asked to email the mayor, district and their schools “explaining your frustrations. If you can’t keep them out of class, you can still write to show support for the school boycott!”

A strike would be the union’s second in less than 16 months, following a two-week walkout in 2019.

On the MSNBC interview, Lightfoot struck a more conciliatory tone than she had during the weekend, when her comments prompted union officials to post on social media: “Let’s really be clear: The educators in the room were working toward an agreement. The politician is blowing it all to pieces.”

“Look, I get it. Teachers are concerned; they’re scared,” Lightfoot said on the show Monday. “Which is absolutely why we’ve been working literally night and day for the last two weeks, in particular, 70-plus meetings since June to get a deal done.

“I think we can still get a deal done. We are working diligently to make that happen. A strike would be catastrophic, mostly for our kids,” Lightfoot said.

She said the city wants teachers to be safe and stressed that her administration is not against organized labor. Of more than 40 unions in the city, which she described as “a labor town,” the mayor said the administration has excellent relationships with all but two: “The right-wing leadership of the Fraternal Order of Police and this union.”

“This is about balancing a lot of different issues but mostly also about putting our kids first. If we do that, if both sides do that, we’ll get a deal done in no time,” she said.

Lightfoot also touched on accommodations for teachers with underlying health conditions that increase their risk for contracting COVID-19, or those who act as caretakers for relatives with underlying conditions. She said the district has “given accommodations, thousands of accommodations for those teachers. We’re trying to see if there’s more that we can do.”

The union has held a number of news conferences in recent weeks, during which teachers have charged that the district hasn’t approved nearly enough accommodations to help all teachers who need them. Teachers have also asked for a reprieve until they received coronavirus vaccinations.

In one news conference, Shavon Coleman, a teacher assistant at Lawndale Community Academy, cried as she described multiple family members contracting COVID-19, including two relatives who had to be treated in the ICU.

“If they don’t think that that’s enough of a reason to not open schools, then that’s more than heartless,” she said at the time.

Concern over the contentious situation continues to be amplified nationally, as eyes remain trained on the city for clues as to what the decision in the country’s third-largest school district will mean for the rest of the country, going forward.

Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, fielded a question about President Joe Biden’s stance on the impasse during a press briefing Monday, echoing a similar question posed to Lightfoot by “Morning Joe” panelist and Associated Press reporter Jonathan Lemire.

Psaki said Biden has “enormous respect for Mayor Lightfoot and he has also been a strong ally to teachers his entire career,” but she did not say what outcome the administration may be hoping for.

“He trusts the mayor and the unions to work this out. They’re both prioritizing the right things, which is ensuring the health and safety of the kids and teachers, and working to make sure that children in Chicago are getting the education they deserve. So, he is hopeful — we are hopeful — they can reach common ground as soon as possible,” Psaki said.

Biden has been a proponent of reopening schools but doesn’t appear to be in a rush to intervene. Lightfoot also was asked whether she would seek help from the White House to meet the shared goal of returning to in-person instruction.

“We are talking to the Biden administration but, you know this, these issues are a uniquely local issue. And we are very, very close, and we can get there if the union takes some steps in our direction. Come back to us and respond to the plans that we put on the table,” she said.

Negotiations were expected to continue Monday.

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Copyright (c) 2021, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.

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