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What were the Chicago schools, the teachers’ union arguing about, and what’s next? – NBC Chicago

Chicago cut classes for five days in a confusing stalemate that ended Monday night with the teachers’ union over COVID-19 safety measures in the nation’s third largest school district.

From distance education to testing, the two sides negotiated nearly a dozen complex points of a security plan that weighed on the return of students from winter vacation. The fight came as other districts increasingly had to go online amid the surge in COVID-19 cases.

Leaders on both sides described the tentative deal, which requires a full union vote, in general terms, but did not provide specific details.

Here’s a closer look:


The issue that caused the most chaos in the district of about 350,000 students was when and how to return to distance learning.

The Chicago Teachers Union wanted the ability to move to district-wide distance education and proposed a lower bar for closing individual schools. Initially, they offered parameters similar to last year’s safety deal, which expired before the school year and remained under negotiation.

School leaders were adamantly opposed to any district-wide return online, so much so that they chose to cancel classes rather than allow them temporarily, as the union argued that it was needed in the middle of the peak. Chicago public school leaders said the pandemic is different now compared to a year ago with vaccine availability and around 91% of staff vaccinated. School officials also said distance learning was detrimental to students.

Two days after the students returned from winter break, the union voted to resume distance education on its own and most union members stayed out of schools, saying they would return when there was a okay or that the latest wave of infections would have subsided. The district responded by excluding them from education platforms that allow them to teach at a distance and canceling classes.

During this year, individual classes temporarily moved away during small outbreaks.

The tentative agreement did not include a provision for district-wide closures, but the two sides agreed to measures to close individual schools, based on the absence of many students and staff due to COVID-19.


The union wanted to expand COVID testing district-wide, requiring testing unless families opt out with the goal of randomly testing at least 10% of the student body and staff each week. The union lambasted the district for its slowness in rolling out school testing and for botching a vacation testing program, in which problems with returning tests to the district ultimately rendered thousands of samples invalid.

Under the agreement in principle, the district will expand testing, but rejected the withdrawal system. Earlier, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the tests were a “quasi-medical procedure” and spoke of liability issues.

Families were reluctant to enroll in the existing district program, which requires consent for weekly guided nasal swabs. By October, only about 7% of students had registered. The number has slowly increased, but according to the proposal, the district and the union are committed to increasing participation.

Over the weekend, the district obtained about 350,000 antigen tests from the state of Illinois, but district leaders did not specify how they will be used.


The fight for COVID-19 safety in a union-friendly Chicago is the latest extension of the controversial relationship between Lightfoot and the union. CTU backed Lightfoot’s opponent in the 2019 election and called an 11-day strike later in the year.

Both sides have filed complaints with a state labor council for unfair practices, and rhetoric outside the bargaining table has grown increasingly bitter.

Union president Jesse Sharkey called Lightfoot “ruthlessly stupid” in his response to school closings, while the mayor accused teachers of “illegal walkouts”, claiming they had “abandoned children”.

The district refused to pay teachers who don’t show up.

During negotiations, the union demanded that no member be disciplined or paid down and wanted an outside party to resolve disputes. The district offered no assurance that wages would be restored.


Over the past two weeks, the two sides have made known areas of agreement.

The district purchased KN95 masks for students and teachers, agreed to bring back the daily COVID-19 screening questions for anyone entering schools, and added more incentives to increase the number of substitute teachers. In addition, teachers will be able to take unpaid leave related to the pandemic, either for their own illness or for increased risk.

NBC Chicago

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