Chicago teachers affirm COVID safety deal for school return

The debate over how to safely reopen Chicago schools is echoed around the US, with new CDC guidelines expected.

Pre-kindergarten teacher Sarah McCarthy works with a student at Dawes Elementary in Chicago.
Pre-kindergarten teacher Sarah McCarthy works with a student at Dawes Elementary in Chicago on January 11 [File: Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times via AP Photo]

Chicago teachers voted in favour of approving a tentative COVID-19 safety plan to allow the third-largest US public school system to gradually resume in-person classes as soon as Thursday for students who have been out of school buildings for almost a year.

Across the US, the debate over whether and how to get children back in schools during the pandemic has divided communities. Many teachers fear for their own health, citing lack of access to protective equipment and vaccines. Parents are struggling balancing having children at home learning remotely, with their own jobs. Concerns that keeping children out of school could inhibit social development and academic progress are tempered by those that children could bring the virus home.

Chicago’s public school system (CPS) is one prominent arena where the arguments have been playing out in public.

The vote by the Chicago Teacher’s Union’s (CTU) roughly 25,000 members ends the possibility of an immediate teacher lockout or strike. The agreement follows months of negotiations — which had intensified in recent weeks — with plans that included more teacher vaccinations and metrics to allow school closures when COVID-19 infections spike.

The CTU said 13,681 members voted to approve the agreement and 6,585 voted against it. CTU said in a statement the agreement was the “absolute limit to which CPS was willing to go at the bargaining table to guarantee a minimum number of guardrails for any semblance of safety in schools”.

Ballots were cast after the union’s 600-member House of Delegates agreed on Monday to allow its 28,000 rank-and-file members to vote on the tentative deal.

The union’s approval allows CPS to begin getting some of the system’s 355,000 students back to classrooms. The district has been teaching students remotely since the pandemic forced it to close its 513 school buildings last spring.

COVID-19 protocols

The plan outlines health and safety protocols, ventilation, testing and contact tracing. It also prioritises vaccines for educators and allows teachers to work remotely if they have, or live with other who have medical conditions.

The plan also sets citywide, school and classroom infection metrics that the district will use to determine whether to close schools.

Some 5,200 special education and pre-kindergarten students, who opted to take some of their classes in person, could head back into the schools starting on Thursday. Another 62,000 elementary and middle school students, who took the same option, return to the classrooms starting March 1.

The district has yet to set a date for when high school students will have the option to return.


National issue

Across the nation, pressure to reopen or expand in-person learning has been building, with the cost of remote learning on education and family life becoming more apparent with time.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to release new school reopening guidelines this week. White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield said in an interview with MSNBC that US President Joe Biden believes teachers are a priority for the vaccine but will listen to scientists.

There have been 2,343,477 confirmed coronavirus cases and 468,217 deaths from COVID-19 in the United States, according to the Johns Hopkins University tally, the most in the world.

The US is nearing 1000 known cases of COVID-19 variants thought to be more transmissible and more deadly, according to the CDC.

The majority is the UK strain with 34 states reporting 932 cases. Two states have reported three cases of the South African variant, which data suggests is resistant to vaccines, and three states have reported 9 of the Brazilian variant.

In Chicago, the teachers union and city administration had been locked in negotiations for months, with teachers demanding stronger safety protocols to prevent the spread of the virus.

English Language Program teacher Marlon Henriquez and bilingual teacher at Pilsen Community Academy Daniela Lugo prepare for a car caravan of supporters of the Chicago Teachers Union, as negotiations with Chicago Public Schools continued on January 30, 2021 [File: Eileen T Meslar/Reuters]

Over the last three weeks, tension increased when union membership voted against returning to schools until a deal was reached. Jackson then threatened to lock out educators from their online systems if they refused to report to work.

The union said teachers would have to stop working altogether, form picket lines and strike if the district retaliated against any members who refused to teach in schools.

While the union’s House of Delegates on Monday voted to allow a rank-and-file vote, it also voiced its displeasure with Lightfoot and district leaders, overwhelmingly passing a resolution of “no confidence” against them.

Source: News Agencies