Chicago Teachers Union Approves Deal To Reopen Schools Safely; Students To Begin Returning This Week

Kimberly Redmond  |

The Chicago Teachers Union approved a deal with the nation’s third-largest school district for the gradual return of in-person learning during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The union’s affirmative vote of the plan, which outlines safety protocols to reduce the spread of the virus on campus, means the school system can start getting some of its 335,000 students back into classrooms

Special education and pre-kindergarten students who have opted to take some classes in person could head back to school starting Thursday. Elementary and middle school students will return in the coming weeks for limited classroom instruction.

The district has not yet set a date for when high school students will have the option of in-person learning.

Wednesday’s approval follows months of negotiations and wards off a possible teacher strike.

Over the past month, the union voted against returning to schools until a deal was reached that included stronger health and safety measures. 

Chicago public school students have been learning remotely since the pandemic forced school buildings to close last spring. About 67,000 students opted to return to campus on Jan. 26, but in-person instruction was canceled due to the labor dispute.

 In response, district officials threatened to lock educators out from their online systems if they did not report to work, Reuters reported.

The approved plan outlines protocols for ventilation, safety, testing and contact tracing, along with infection metrics the district will use to determine whether or not to close schools. It also prioritizes vaccines for educators and allows teachers to work remotely if they have, or live with someone who has, medical issues.

In a joint statement Wednesday, the district’s chief executive Janice Jackson and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said they are looking forward to welcoming students back in the days ahead. 

“The ratification of our agreement ensures families have options to choose in-person learning and make a plan that is best for them,” they said. “This vote reaffirms the strength and fairness of our plan, which provides families and employees certainty about returning to schools and guarantees the best possible health and safety protocols.”

Union president Jesse Sharkey criticized the final agreement, but acknowledged it was an improvement over the district’s original proposal, the Chicago Sun-Times reported. 

In a letter to union members, Sharkey wrote, “This plan is not what any of us deserve. Not us. Not our students. Not their families. The fact that CPS could not delay reopening a few short weeks to ramp up vaccinations and preparations in schools is a disgrace. This agreement represents where we should have started months ago, not where this has landed.”

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