CHICAGO – Chicago schools will expand COVID-19 testing and have standards to switch schools to remote learning under a hard-fought tentative deal approved by teachers' union leaders. But parents and some union members questioned whether the bitter fight over pandemic safety protocols that canceled five days in the nation’s third-largest school district was worth it.
Students were poised to return Wednesday, one week after the Chicago Teachers Union voted for remote learning and instructed members to stay home until there was a deal or the latest COVID-19 surge subsided. The district, which flatly rejected online class and said it was disastrous for students, responded by locking teachers out of online platforms, docking their pay and canceling classes in the roughly 350,000-student district.
The pandemic learning issues in Chicago mirror those elsewhere, but the city's fight with the powerful union stood out, drawing attention from the White House, governor's office and fueling fresh frustrations for parents already worn out by the past two years.
For some, the ends didn't justify the means, dragging out uncertainty for students in the largely Latino and Black low-income district.
Parent Nolberto Casas, who has two young children enrolled in CPS, said the fight between the union and city turned his house upside down. Neither he nor his wife can work remotely and had to take off work. He blamed the union for the nightly uncertainty about the status of schools and said the agreement contained “marginal” improvements. He said remote learning was not a good option, particularly for one of his children who has special needs.
“We were basically flying by the seat of our pants,” said Casas, who lives in a heavily Latino enclave of the city.
Many union members also seemed displeased with the end results, saying they fell far short of initial demands.
The tentative deal didn't include two key provisions the union wanted: Metrics to prompt district-wide remote learning and assurances that union members wouldn’t be punished for failing to report to schools.
The union’s house of delegates approved the deal by 63%, lower than the 80% who voted a week earlier to teach remotely. Union President Jesse Sharkey acknowledged it “wasn’t a home run,” a day before some 25,000 rank-and-file members were due to start voting on the deal. Voting was to end Wednesday.
Dave Stieber, a social studies and poetry teacher at a South Side high school, said Tuesday that he would vote against the proposal — but all of his frustration was with the city.
The union’s elected negotiators “are busting their behind to get the city to agree to basic safety measures,” but the city and particularly Mayor Lori Lightfoot refused to budge, Stieber said. He wasn't confident any of the measures in the agreement would add protection for students or staff.
Lightfoot and school leaders also took criticism for their handling from parents, particularly in waiting to announce school cancelations until the evening hours each day, lobbing sharp comments at the union and avoiding questions from local reporters for the national news circuit.
Parent Shavon Harris, who has a 10-year-old son enrolled at a North Side school where nearly all the students are Black and low-income, said district communication was poor, including about COVID-testing. She said the safety plan should have been in place months ago after last year's expired, particularly after kids lost out on education during remote learning.
“We’re back to square one and back and they don’t have a back up plan,” she said of the dispute.
The first-term mayor dismissed questions about her leadership and was quick to say the only losers in the negotiations were children who were out of school.
City officials have argued that schools are safe with protocols in place and have touted a $100 million safety plan, including air purifiers in each classroom. Roughly 91% of staff are vaccinated and masks are required indoors.
At the same time, the union also took hits.
The CTU has historically enjoyed strong support from parents, including during an 11-day teachers strike in 2019. But more parents have been increasingly vocal against the union, particularly during disagreements about COVID-19 safety protocols.
An increasing number of union members were also willing to defy union directives, from 10% on the first day of the union’s action to roughly 16% Monday, according to the district. One union member used a Chicago Sun-Times letter to publicly quit the union Tuesday, saying the dramatic CTU strategy undermined confidence in union leaders and the standoff was the “final straw.”
Still, some labor experts including Robert Bruno, a University of Illinois professor who wrote a book on the 2012 teachers strike, said that despite some seemingly petty rhetoric between both sides, the negotiated agreement was a win.
The talks also resulted in the district buying KN95 masks for students and teachers, boosting incentives to attract substitute teachers and allowing teachers unpaid leave related to the pandemic.
“The outcome is good for keeping the schools open and for having a productive relationship between two parties that, quite frankly, don’t trust each other,” he said.
Follow Sophia Tareen on Twitter: https://twitter.com/sophiatareen.
Follow Kathleen Foody on Twitter: https://twitter.com/katiefoody.