Teaching Profession

In Chicago and Other Big Cities, Teachers’ Unions Are Delaying School Reopenings

By Madeline Will — February 08, 2021 | Updated: February 10, 2021 7 min read
Elementary 1 teacher Melissa Vozar sits outside of Suder Elementary in Chicago to teach a virtual class on Jan. 11, 2021. The Chicago Teachers Union said that its members voted to defy an order to return to the classroom before they are vaccinated against the coronavirus, setting up a showdown with district officials who have said such a move would amount to an illegal strike.
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Updated: On Feb. 9, members of the Chicago Teachers Union voted to approve the reopening agreement.

After weeks of negotiations over when schools should reopen—with teachers protesting going back by sitting outside their schools in snowy weather and teaching virtually—the Chicago district and the teachers’ union reached a tentative agreement on Sunday.

The agreement will now be considered by the union’s House of Delegates, and if approved, sent to the full membership of 30,000 educators for a vote. Ratifying the deal would avoid having a second teachers’ strike in less than two years in the nation’s third-largest district.

The situation in Chicago is indicative of how influential teachers unions have been in shaping school reopening decisions in some places across the country. While in-person instruction is already happening in much of the country, many teachers in big cities say they’re reluctant to go back into the classroom amid the coronavirus pandemic, especially before they’re vaccinated. Yet a growing body of research shows that in-person instruction can be done safely.

Here’s what the tentative deal looks like in Chicago: Preschoolers and some special education students—who have been back in person since Jan. 11 but were sent home on Jan. 27 during negotiations—would return to their classrooms Thursday. Elementary teachers would return to campus Feb. 22, with their students coming back March 1, and middle school teachers would report back to buildings March 1, with their students coming back a week later.

There is no date set for high school students’ return. Previously, elementary and middle school students were supposed to begin some in-person classes on Feb. 1, with their teachers returning a week before.

The delay gives the district more time to vaccinate teachers, which was a sticking point in the negotiations. Returning preschool and special education teachers, as well as employees with high-risk household members, will be the first to be offered vaccines this week. Then, priority will be given to union members who will soon be returning to in-person instruction, along with members who are at the highest risk for serious illness or who live in one of the 10 zip codes in the city with the highest COVID-19 positivity rates.

Last week, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said vaccinating teachers is not a prerequisite for reopening schools. The White House, however, downplayed her comments, with Press Secretary Jen Psaki saying that Walensky was speaking in her “personal capacity” and official recommendations would be coming soon.

Accommodations for remote work were another point of contention during Chicago’s negotiations, with the union saying its members who are high-risk or have high-risk family members shouldn’t have to work in person, and the district saying it might not be able to properly staff schools if it granted every request. The tentative agreement says that all employees who are high-risk or who are the primary caregivers for someone who is high-risk can work from home. Teachers with no in-person students can also continue to work remotely.

Teachers who have other household members who are high-risk or who have child-care challenges can apply to work remotely, but approval will be based on what is “operationally feasible.”

The district also agreed to pause in-person instruction for two weeks if the city’s COVID-19 positivity rate increases for seven consecutive days, the rate for each of those days is at least 15 percent more than one week prior, and test positivity on the last day is 10 percent or more. These metrics don’t go as far as the union wanted.

After the tentative deal was announced, the Chicago Teachers Union tweeted that “nothing is perfect, but this moment, and our work for nearly a year has once again proved that there is no sensible path to collective good without collective action.”

Meanwhile, Janice Jackson, the system’s chief executive officer, said in a statement that the agreement was a “victory for the students and families who need more than remote learning can provide.”

Where else are unions pushing back on districts’ reopening plans?

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union, has supported resuming in-person instruction with appropriate safety measures in place. But teachers need to feel supported, she says. “I’m confident that we will overcome the fear,” Weingarten told the New York Times. “But it’s not going to happen in two-and-a-half nanoseconds.”

In many big cities, local unions and their districts have clashed when it comes to determining how and when schools should reopen. Here are some of the negotiations that have taken place in recent weeks.

  • In Philadelphia, pre-K through 2nd grade students are scheduled to return to classrooms Feb. 22, with their teachers expected to go back to their schools on Monday. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers had asked its members to stay home Monday in defiance of the superintendent’s order, but on Sunday night, the district changed course and said teachers did not have to return to campus yet, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. Superintendent William Hite has asked a neutral third-party arbitrator to decide whether buildings are safe, but the mediator has not yet made a decision. Teachers, however, will still protest at dozens of schools today.
  • The Cincinnati Federation of Teachers sued its school system to stop its plans to start bringing students back into the classroom, but a judge dismissed the complaint. The district began bringing some students back to campus for hybrid instruction Feb. 2, as part of a phased re-entry plan. Students with disabilities and students in pre-K through 3rd grade were the first to head back to school buildings last week. Grades 4-6 and 9-12 will return the week of Feb. 15, and grades 7-8 will return the week of March 1.
  • Some students in Washington, D.C., began going back into school buildings on Feb. 2 for the first time since March. But the Washington Teachers Union still has concerns about the safety of school buildings, and members may soon vote on whether to authorize the union to take collective action against the district’s reopening plan, which could include a strike. Meanwhile, the city filed a temporary restraining order against the union to attempt to prevent it from engaging in a strike or work stoppage. It is illegal for government employees in the District to go on strike, although teachers have engaged in work stoppages before, including participating in a “sickout” in November over the school system’s plan to reopen schools.
  • Near Seattle, the Bellevue teachers’ union reached a “painful compromise” with its school district to begin resuming in-person instruction. Late last month, union members refused to report back to school buildings, saying they didn’t think it was safe before school staff were vaccinated. Other teachers still teaching online didn’t hold live classes in protest. The district sued the union for its “illegal strike,” but the court denied the district’s request to immediately require teachers to return to the classroom.

    Since then, the district and the union were able to come to a tentative agreement that brings students back on a more gradual schedule and gives school staff more voice in future reopening decisions, KUOW reported. Still, Bellevue Education Association President Allison Snow told KUOW that teachers of color, in particular, feel “abandoned and betrayed” by the decision.

  • Last week, the city of San Francisco filed a lawsuit against its school district for failure to reopen. Days later, the teachers’ union and the district reached a tentative agreement to eventually reopen schools. San Francisco is currently in the state’s highest tier of risk, but when it drops to the next-highest tier (“substantial” risk, instead of “widespread”), schools can reopen as soon as all staff required to work in person have had the opportunity to be vaccinated. If San Francisco falls to the two lowest tiers of risk (“moderate” or “minimal”), schools can reopen regardless of the availability of vaccines.
  • The Fairfax Education Association in northern Virginia was one of the first unions in the country to draw a hard line: Schools should remain closed until there’s a vaccine or a widely available treatment for COVID-19. Now, teachers there are starting to receive shots, but the union says schools should remain closed until all school staff members who want to be are vaccinated and until case numbers in the region decline. Still, the district, which is the largest in Virginia, will start bringing students back to campus in groups starting Feb. 16. FEA has said it wants a later start date, since all employees won’t be fully vaccinated by then.

    A since-deleted tweet from the union said a “safe return to schools includes 14 days of no community spread, PPE, cleaning equipment, full-time nurses in all schools, as well as staff & student vaccinations,” leading many to believe the union was calling for schools to remain closed until students could be vaccinated. But in an email, FEA President Kimberly Adams said that tweet was simply the union’s “hope for the future,” not what they needed in order to support reopening.

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