Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Chicago union leaders approve return-to-school plan after five days of canceled classes

CHICAGO (AP) – Students are ready to return to Chicago public schools after teachers union leaders approved a plan for the nation’s third-largest county on COVID-19 safety protocols, ending a bitter standoff that has canceled classes for five days.

While school districts across the country have faced similar challenges due to skyrocketing COVID-19 cases, labor struggles in union-friendly Chicago have heightened concerns about distance learning and other concerns related to the pandemic.

In accordance with the agreement approved late Monday night, students will return to class on Wednesday and teachers a day early. It still requires the approval of some 25,000 union members, with a vote scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday. Chicago Teachers Union spokeswoman Ronnie Reese reaffirmed the goal of bringing students back on Wednesday, even as voting continues.

READ MORE: Hospital admissions for children too young to be vaccinated against COVID skyrocket

Neither side disclosed full details of the proposal Monday night, but leaders generally said the agreement includes figures for individual school closures during outbreaks and plans to accelerate COVID-19 testing in a low-income school district for blacks and Hispanics. which has about 350,000 students.

“We know it was very difficult for the students and their families,” Mayor Laurie Lightfoot said during a press conference. “Some will ask who won and who lost. Nobody wins when our students are out of the place where they can learn best and where they are most safe. “

Union leaders admitted it was not a home run, but said teachers want to return to class with students.

“It wasn’t an agreement that had everything, it’s not a perfect agreement, but it’s definitely something we can think of, in part because it was so difficult to get it,” union president Jesse Sharkey said in a separate press release. conferences.

Last week, the union called for district-wide online training until a safety plan is agreed or until the last surge in COVID-19 subsides. The district, which has phased out district-wide distance learning, responded by denying teachers access to distance learning systems two days after students returned from winter break. The union’s House of Delegates voted Monday night to suspend its labor action.

While some progress has been made on smaller issues such as masks, negotiations over a security plan over the weekend did not lead to an agreement, and the negotiating rhetoric became increasingly harsh. Several directors canceled Tuesday’s classes well in advance and warned of the impending closure.

Sharkey said earlier Monday that the union and the district had “drifted apart on a number of key points,” and accused Lightfoot of refusing to compromise on teachers’ core priorities.

“The mayor is ruthless, but she is ruthlessly stupid, she is ruthlessly stubborn,” Sharkey said, referring to an earlier comment by Lightfoot about refusing to “soften” in the negotiations. “She mercilessly refuses to look for housing, and we are trying to find a way to get people back to school.”

Lightfoot accused the teachers of “throwing” students and responded to the union president.

“If I got a dollar every time some privileged, powerful white guy called me stupid, I would be a millionaire,” Black Lightfoot told WLS-TV.

By evening, she announced that she was optimistic about the latest proposal, which had been submitted to union leaders for a vote.

Her first term in office was marked by other battles with an influential union that backed her opponent in the 2019 elections, including a fight against security protocol last year and a teachers’ strike in 2019.

Events in the fight against pending complaints at the state labor council made headlines in international newspapers and caught the attention of the White House. Press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday that President Joe Biden, who pushed for schools to remain open, kept in touch with Lightfoot and Illinois Governor JB Pritzker during the talks.

READ MORE: Schools Affected by COVID-19 Teacher Shortages Rely on Administrators and Parents

Parents and advocacy groups also stepped up calls for faster action on Monday. Some parents on the West Side of the city demanded that the students return immediately.

Cherie Warner, the mother of 15-year-old twins, said the sudden loss of personal learning hit her family hard.

One of her daughters is depressed and anxious, and the winter is always difficult. The loss of connection with friends and teachers adds to that burden, Warner said.

The girls “skipped all of eighth grade and didn’t seem quite ready for high school,” Warner said. “They’re all trying to figure out how to catch up, and it’s a really stressful situation.”

Other parents said the area needs to do more.

Angela Spencer, Kenwood Oakland Community Organizer and Nurse, said she was concerned about the safety of her children in schools. Spencer said their schools were not properly cleaned up prior to the pandemic and that she now “distrusts” the district’s protocols.

Several families, represented by the conservative Liberty Justice Center in Chicago, have filed a closure lawsuit, while more than 5,000 others have signed a petition calling for a return to full-time education.

District officials, who describe the union’s actions as “illegal stoppages,” have left buildings open to dispense student food and said schools with sufficient staff were allowed to open their doors to students. Some teachers came despite union directives; District officials estimate that about 16% of teachers did so on Monday.

Three schools, including Mount Greenwood Elementary School, were able to begin training on Monday, district officials said. Parents at a predominantly white school on the southwest side of town expressed relief.

City officials have argued the schools are safe with current protocols. School principals advertised a $ 100 million safety plan, including air purifiers in every classroom. Approximately 91% of staff are vaccinated and masks must be worn indoors.

Union officials argued that security measures were inadequate and the county messed up testing and infection-tracking databases.

Associated Press authors Kathleen Foody in Chicago and Rick Callahan in Indianapolis, and photojournalist Charles Rex Arbogast contributed to this report.

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