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‘No One Wins in This Scenario’: As Chicago Schools Prepare to Reopen, Rift Between Mayor and Union Deepens

Members of the Chicago Teachers Union held a car caravan around City Hall to protest in-person learning as part of a four-day work stoppage. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

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Decisions to shift to remote learning in Chicago will be made on a school-by-school basis, depending on teacher and student absenteeism, and the district and union will work together to enroll more families in a voluntary COVID-19 testing program, under an agreement reached Monday night.

But the Chicago Teachers Union walked away from its four-day “work stoppage” without much of what it was hoping to achieve, including district-wide triggers for closing schools and a mandatory student testing program that required parents to opt-out. One official lamented that workers gave up four days’ wages in exchange for concessions like increasing the supply of masks to schools.

“We sacrificed pay for face masks,” Stacy Davis Gates, political and legislative director for the union, told reporters.

The plan, which won’t be released until the union’s full membership votes this week, also includes efforts to reduce staff shortages by adding pay incentives to increase the substitute pool when teachers are out, and stipends for employees who help register families for testing and vaccination appointments. Staff members will also be trained to conduct contact tracing.

“We understand that our relationship to our families is a critical part of engaging in this testing program,” added Jennifer Johnson, CTU’s chief of staff. The goal, she said, is to sign up 100 percent of families by Feb. 1.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who faces reelection next year, also promised to consider the perspectives of parents should there be another management-labor breakdown. “We will never, never not have you at the table,” she said. While some parents expressed deep concerns over safety in keeping their children home after the holiday break, others argued that remote learning was detrimental for their children and wanted to see better cooperation between the mayor and the union. Some also agreed with the city that making decisions about closures on a school-by-school basis makes more sense at this point in the pandemic because vaccinations are available and Omicron is less likely to cause serious illness.

But observers said the conflict didn’t leave either side in a good place.

“No one wins in this scenario. Parents and students lost with five days of disruption to their schooling routine,” said Bradley Marianno, an assistant education professor of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, adding that the district and teachers union “further solidified” a relationship in which they “only operate in crisis versus collaboration.”

The agreement, he said, will likely make schools “marginally safer,” but strikes and threats of strikes every time the district and the union negotiate are bound to wear on parents and educators.

The conflict also drew attention to the low vaccination rate among Chicago students. Less than a third of the district’s 340,000 students are fully vaccinated and rates vary widely at schools across the district. 

As cases spiked in December, “We began to have an increasable sense of foreboding,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said during the union’s press conference. 

While almost two thirds of the union’s delegates approved the agreement, Sharkey suggested the rank and file members might not be satisfied.

“We don’t try to sell people on the benefits of the agreement that are not there,” he said. “Our members are grown ups, and we understand sometimes you don’t have a guarantee in advance.”

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