Teaching Profession

Chicago Teachers Approve School Reopening Plan: ‘We Got What We Were Able to Take’

By Hannah Leone & Katherine Rosenberg-Douglas, Chicago Tribune — February 10, 2021 4 min read
Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson speaks during a news conference at City Hall in Chicago on Feb. 7, 2021. The Chicago Teachers Union has approved a deal with the nation’s third-largest school district to get students back to class during the coronavirus pandemic, union officials announced early Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021.

Chicago Teachers Union members have voted two-to-one in favor of a reopening deal with Chicago Public Schools, signaling that in-person classes can resume Thursday as planned.

The union’s 25,000 members had through 11:59 p.m. Tuesday to vote on proposed framework after its 600-member House of Delegates on Monday decided to put the decision in members’ hands. Now ratified, it is a binding agreement between CTU and CPS.

The union swiftly certified the results, with more than 20,000 members voting. More than two-thirds voted yes, while nearly a third voted no, and only a simple majority was needed to pass. The number of yes votes accounts for close to 55 percent of total membership.

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In a letter to members, CTU President Jesse Sharkey said the plan represents where the parties should have started months ago.

“We did not get what we wanted or what we deserved,” Sharkey said. “We got what we were able to take. CTU members fought hard and sacrificed for this, so we have to protect and use it.”

He called it a “disgrace” that CPS would not delay reopening a few more weeks to allow more time for vaccinations and preparations.

“That is a stain on the record of their administration,” he said. “In a humane system, we would have used this as a beginning to build out real equity for school communities that had been starved of resources and equity decades before the pandemic hit.”

But Sharkey acknowledged what the CTU bargaining team was able to achieve, including delaying reopening, enforceable safety commitments, vaccine promises and more considerations for remote work accommodations.

Under the tentative framework, the first group of students and staff — pre-K and special education cluster programs — returns on Thursday. When schools briefly opened to those groups in January, fewer than 1 in 5 eligible students attended.

Subsequent groups will be staggered, with staff returning ahead of students: Kindergarten through fifth grade staff go back Feb. 22, followed by their students on March 1. Sixth through eighth grade staff go back March 1, followed by their students on March 8.

So many families stood behind CTU because the union was fighting for not just school staff, but for children and their communities, Sharkey wrote.

“It’s time for mayoral control of our public schools to end,” Sharkey wrote. “That’s why delegates overwhelmingly passed a vote of no confidence in the mayor and the leadership of the Chicago Public Schools on Monday night.”

Delegates passed the no-confidence resolution with 90 percent support, according to the CTU. Though nearly 85 percent of delegates voted in favor of sending the deal to members, many said they did so only because they felt others should have the choice and that they personally planed to vote no in their capacity as a member.

As members cast their ballots Tuesday, they reported mixed feelings about their decisions.

Halle Quezada, a second-grade teacher at Boone Elementary, said while she voted against the framework, she empathizes with the bargaining team.

“I can’t imagine what that must have been like for them, what they must have gone through,” she said. “I know how hard it was to just watch a full press conference. It hurt to know what we are living and hear what was being said and to hear the vitriol in the voice of the top leaders for our work, and the lack of understanding.”

Quezada said while she had outstanding concerns about accommodations and other health and safety factors, her “no” vote was heavily influenced by the treatment of employees facing discipline for their communications with parents.

While all members who were locked out for working remotely will have their access restored and any discipline dismissed, the framework does not ensure back pay for lockout days. And though CPS agreed to drop cases related to communications with parents only if formal discipline had not yet been issued, it has not agreed to dismiss 55 communication-related cases in which members had already been given formal disciplinary notices, according to the CTU. While the union has pledged to keep fighting those cases through grievances, arbitration or other legal means, members such as Quezada want more justice for their colleagues.

“That was the most jarring,” Quezada said. “The health and safety was what I expected. Fifty-five teachers not having their charges dropped, it seems vindictive and punitive.”

In his letter, Sharkey thanked members for their sacrifices and support.

“No-one sacrificed more in this struggle than our rank and file members who were locked out, docked pay or faced discipline, and we owe them our most profound thanks for making the impossible possible,” Sharkey wrote. “Those educators... are the leaders that finally moved the bargaining table. They made CPS finally negotiate. They delayed reopening. They cracked open the mayor’s hypocrisy. On Tuesday, the day we were voting on this agreement, CPS began at last to reinstate those locked out workers.”

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

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