Chicago schools make progress in talks with teachers on Covid-19 safety plan

An exterior view shows Brentano Elementary Math & Science Academy in Chicago's Logan Square neighbourhood. Chicago Public Schools suspended in-person learning due to concerns around the Covid-19 precautions, January 27, 2021. ― Reuters pic
An exterior view shows Brentano Elementary Math & Science Academy in Chicago's Logan Square neighbourhood. Chicago Public Schools suspended in-person learning due to concerns around the Covid-19 precautions, January 27, 2021. ― Reuters pic

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CHICAGO, Feb 2 ― Chicago Public Schools said it made progress in talks yesterday with the city's teachers union on a Covid-19 safety plan that could prevent a possible work stoppage and allow thousands of students to resume in-person classes.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools Chief Executive Janice Jackson said in a joint statement that the two sides secured agreement on one issue and made substantial progress on the framework that addresses the remaining issues.

As a result, teachers will not be locked out from their online systems and all students will remain virtual today and tomorrow, the statement said.

“We had a positive day of bargaining today, and have made some progress, but there is still progress to be made,” the Chicago Teachers Union said in a tweet. “In order for schools to reopen safely, we must work together to put a plan in place that keeps safety at the forefront of everything we do.”

The two sides have been at odds for months on teachers' demands for stronger safety protocols to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus in classrooms. The dispute came to a head over the weekend when talks stalled between the two sides.

Chicago Public Schools, the country's third-largest school district, cancelled in-person classes for nearly 70,000 students yesterday after teachers threatened to stay away from classrooms until an agreement was reached.

Jackson also ordered more than 13,000 pre-kindergarten, special education, elementary and middle-school teachers and paraprofessionals to report to schools on Monday to prepare classes for later. She also said teachers would be locked out of their remote teaching systems if they failed to report in person without a valid excuse.

The union has threatened to stop working altogether online and in-person, form picket lines and strike if the district retaliates against any members who fail to report to school buildings.

The labour dispute in Chicago comes 15 months after the city's teachers staged an 11-day strike over overcrowded classrooms, support-staff levels and pay.

In the current dispute, the Chicago Teachers Union, which represents the city's 28,000 public school educators, has been locked in negotiations with the district for months over a gradual reopening of schools for the system's 355,000 students.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said during yesterday's press briefing that President Joe Biden “trusts the mayor and the unions to work this out. They are both prioritising the right things.”

Vaccinations a major issue

As of Monday, vaccinations for teachers remained a key issue, and Lightfoot said officials were working to get teachers, particularly those working or living in the hardest-hit areas, inoculated as soon as possible.

The two sides also were in talks on testing for teachers and students, and infection metrics used to decide when to close schools are also on the table. Another sticking point is accommodations for teachers to work remotely if they suffer from or live with people who have medical conditions.

The school district has been instructing students remotely since the pandemic forced it to close school buildings last spring. Some 62,000 elementary and middle-school students signed up to take some of their classes in person starting yesterday.

An additional 5,200 pre-kindergarten and special education students who chose the same option had been taking classes in their schools up until last Tuesday, when the district canceled in-person instruction for them for the rest of the week because of the dispute.

The district has yet to announce when high school students will have the option to return to school buildings. ― Reuters

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