CHICAGO — 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.
The vote by the union's roughly 25,000 members ends the possibility of an immediate teacher lockout or strike. The agreement follows months of negotiations — which had intensified in recent weeks — with plans that included more teacher vaccinations and metrics to allow school closures when COVID-19 infections spike.
The union said 13,681 members voted to approve the agreement and 6,585 voted against it. In a statement, the union described the agreement as the "absolute limit to which CPS was willing to go at the bargaining table to guarantee a minimum number of guardrails for any semblance of safety in schools."
Union President Jesse Sharkey also criticized the agreement in an email to members that was released by the union.
"This plan is not what any of us deserve. Not us. Not our students. Not their families," the email said. "The fact that CPS could not delay reopening a few short weeks to ramp up vaccinations and preparations in schools is a disgrace."
But in a statement, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS CEO Janice Jackson defended the agreement, saying it "ensures families have options to choose in-person learning and make a plan that is best for them."
Further, after weeks of pointing to $100 million that has been spent to make schools safe, Lightfoot and Jackson said that the vote itself by the union "reaffirms the strength and fairness of our plan, which provides families and employees certainty about returning to schools and guarantees the best possible health and safety protocols."
The first wave of students and staff, in pre-K and special education, is due back Thursday, with parents still having the option of remote learning. Those students briefly returned last month, but then stopped amid the escalating fight with the union, which voted to continue remote teaching and reject the district's plans.
Other students in K-8 will return in the coming weeks for limited classroom instruction, with teachers returning before students. Students in K-5 would return March 1, with staff returning Feb. 22. Students in grades 6-8 would return March 8, with teachers returning March 1. No plans have been set for high school students, who'll continue with online learning.
Just how many students will return to school in the next few weeks is unknown. But some parents say they're not convinced that schools are safe enough to send their children back.
"No matter how they've tried to convince us, they put all this stuff in the schools to make them safe, we don't feel they're safe yet," said Joseph William, whose five children ranging in age from 6 to 14 attend public schools in the city. "In Black and brown communities on the West Side and the South Side, some schools were not safe before the pandemic and now they're all safe? This is not a chance I'm willing to take with my babies."
Still, William said, he was happy there was an agreement because it will help parents who can't afford financially to stay home with their children any longer.
Talks over resuming classroom instruction since going fully remote last March have been heated amid debates worldwide over reopening schools. Lightfoot had warned teachers that they would be locked out of district systems if they didn't report for duty. The union countered by threatening to strike.
Chicago Public Schools officials have insisted it is safe to have classes in person with protocols in place, like wearing face coverings and a safety plan that includes thousands of classroom air filters. District officials and Lightfoot has said remote instruction is leaving many behind, particularly Black and Latino students who make up the majority of the roughly 340,000-student district.
The union contends the district's plans falls short in protecting teachers and that not enough students have been interested in returning to fully staff more than 600 schools. The union previously voted to defy orders to return to classes and continued teaching remotely.
Early parent surveys showed about 77,000 students were interested in returning to classes. When in-person school briefly resumed last month for special education and pre-K students, student attendance was roughly 19% of those eligible.