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‘Cooling Off Period’ Puts Hold on Chicago Teachers Strike

CHICAGO, Ill.—Chicago school officials backed off on their threats to lock out teachers who did not return to work in-person on Monday, Feb. 1, by cutting off their access to remote-learning software. Instead, they announced a two-day “cooling-off period” while talks with the Chicago Teachers Union continue.

“We have reached another important milestone today in our efforts to provide in-person learning for our students in the Chicago Public Schools system,” Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot and CPS CEO Dr. Janice K. Jackson said in a joint statement late in the afternoon Feb. 1. “We are calling for a 48-hour cooling-off period that will hopefully lead to a final resolution on all open issues. As a result of the progress we have made, and as a gesture of good faith, for now, teachers will retain access to their Google Suite.”

The negotiations had broken down the day before, Sunday, Jan. 31, with the city demanding that all teachers from prekindergarten through eighth grade return to in-person classes on Monday, unless they had been given an exemption for having medical conditions that put them at a high risk if they caught COVID-19. Meanwhile, CTU members had passed a resolution Jan. 24 to keep teaching remotely until they reached an agreement that ensured a safe way to return. 

On Sunday, Dr. Jackson threatened that if a deal wasn’t reached, all teachers who didn’t come in on Monday would have their remote-software access cut off at 3 p.m. The union had resolved to strike if even one person was locked out.

“An injury to one is an injury to all,” a union spokesperson told LaborPress. “The only way we will strike is if the mayor forces one by locking us out.”

“Our members’ resolve on the ground allowed us to make real progress at the bargaining table today on a number of the most difficult issues of this negotiation,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said in a statement Feb. 1. “We don’t want a lockout. We want to keep working remotely as we bargain an agreement to return to our classrooms safely. And we’re one step closer to that goal today, because management has agreed to stay at the table rather than escalating conflict or locking out educators.”

Chicago public schools began reopening Jan. 11, with about 1% of the system’s 341,000 students coming back to the classroom. Both Jackson and Mayor Lightfoot have been pushing hard for more to return, insisting that it would be safe. The district expected 77,000 students to come back on Feb. 1.

On Saturday, Jan. 30, the two sides reached agreement on four areas: health and safety protocols, such as temperature checks, cleaning and disinfection, face coverings, and social distancing; ensuring that classrooms were properly ventilated; a 10-person contact-tracing team to investigate all COVID cases in the schools; and setting up health and safety committees.

That left major areas of dispute unresolved, over what standards should be used to determine when schools should close, vaccinations for teachers, COVID testing for students and staff, and accommodations for working from home.

CPS has agreed to let about 5,000 staff with high-risk medical conditions continue working from home, but has resisted doing the same for about 2,000 more who live with someone with similar health risks. The union wanted all staff to have the opportunity to be vaccinated before being required to work in-person, and to be tested for COVID every week. 

Management, as of Jan. 29, had agreed to test half the staff for COVID weekly, according to CTU. But Jackson has said vaccinating teachers is not essential to reopening schools.

The city is giving CPS about 1,000 vaccines per week, Sharkey told the Chicago Sun-Times on Jan. 31. The CTU has more than 25,000 members.  

“The mayor and CPS leadership say the past few weeks of in-person learning have been successful, but even CPS’ own data shows more than 100 positive cases of COVID-19 in buildings among both students and staff since Jan. 9,” the union posted on Twitter Feb. 1.

The health metrics used to determine when it’s safe to reopen may be the biggest sticking point. 

“We have no health metrics,” the CTU spokesperson said. “How can you determine whether it’s safe if you have no metric to measure it?”

CTU demanded that schools not reopen until the citywide positivity rate on COVID tests was below 3%, and to close schools if neighborhood transmission rates were too high. CPS as of Jan. 29 had offered to close the district if more than 3% of staff tested were positive for the virus.

According to federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures, of the about 140,000 people tested for COVID-19 in Chicago and its inner suburbs Jan. 21-29, 6.25% had the virus.

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