Chicago Nears Deal to Begin Reopening Schools as Agreements Elsewhere Prove Elusive | Cities

An agreement between city and union officials in Chicago over how and when to reopen schools for in-person learning seems imminent after a weeks-long stand-off nearly forced a strike in the country’s third-largest school system.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot unveiled the broad framework of a tentative agreement that she and Janice Jackson, CEO of Chicago Public Schools, and other city officials brokered with the city’s teachers union on Sunday.

“At long last, CPS has finally reached a tentative agreement with the Chicago Teachers Union that opens up school doors for our pre-K, cluster and K-through-eight students,” said Lightfoot, who was also also quick to underscore that the union’s 25,000 members could still vote to reject it.

Under the tentative agreement, students enrolled in the city’s pre-kindergarten program and those with disabilities would restart in-person learning Feb. 11. Those students returned to classrooms in January – albeit briefly – before the labor dispute. Students in kindergarten through fifth grade would return to school March 1, while students in sixth grade through eighth grade would return March 8.

The potential deal includes an aggressive vaccination timeline for teachers – 1,500 doses per week for educators, including 2,000 doses this week for teachers heading back to classrooms first – a coronavirus infection standard that would trigger the citywide closure of schools and some work-from-home concessions for teachers whose students decide to stick with virtual learning, among other things.

Photos: COVID-19 Vaccinations

In relaying the details to his members Sunday evening, Jesse Sharkey, the president of the city’s teachers union, characterized the agreement as the best offer they’re likely to get in writing. If they don’t accept it, they’re probably looking at a strike, he said, which he noted wouldn’t necessarily secure them any additional benefits.

The union is set to begin voting on the agreement as early as this evening or tomorrow.

A similarly imminent agreement is taking shape in San Francisco, where city and union officials have been locking horns for months over reopening schools for in-person learning.

A tentative deal would allow the San Francisco Unified School District’s 52,000 students, in kindergarten through 12th grade, to return to classrooms once the threat level falls to red, the second-most restrictive tier, as long as vaccinations are available on-site for school staff. If the threat level falls or orange, the third-highest restrictive tier, then students would be allowed back regardless of whether vaccinations are available on-site.

San Francisco is currently in the state’s highest restrictive tier, purple, so the agreement, if ratified, doesn’t mean schools will reopen for in-person learning any time soon.

The tentative deal also covers vaccination priority for school staff, personal protective equipment for staff and students, socially distanced classrooms, frequent testing and ventilation upgrades, among other things. Notably, the city and union officials still need to agree on details of classroom instruction and schedules for in-person learning.

“This is a major step forward toward a goal that we share with so many parents: safe reopening of school buildings for students and staff,” the city’s several unions that represent school staff said in a joint statement. “In addition to reaching agreement around baseline safety standards, the unions also negotiated groundbreaking language that provides school district support for vaccine prioritization, availability, and education for their members.”

The agreement is set to go before the Board of Education for a vote on Tuesday.

In Philadelphia, where roughly 2,000 teachers had been scheduled to report to schools on Monday, a labor dispute is just commencing as concerns mount over poor ventilation in schools and lack of available vaccinations for staff.

School superintendent William Hite recently outlined plans for roughly 9,000 students to begin receiving a mix of in-person and virtual learning on Feb. 22, with teachers reporting to classrooms Monday to prepare.

“Our educators are afraid, for themselves, students and communities,” Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. “And they’re right. The district has an abysmal record for addressing health and safety concerns.”

He continued: “In the middle of a pandemic, the district is hellbent on pushing educators and students back into schools that in some cases are literally held together by duct tape.”

Meanwhile, New York City, where Mayor Bill de Blasio and union officials wrestled for months over reopening plans, announced Monday that it plans to return more than 60,000 middle school students who opted for in-person learning last year back into classrooms beginning Feb. 25. It’s a major step that moves the city toward the goal of fully reopening for in-person learning, though without a plan for how to offer in-person instruction to high schoolers, the majority of the city’s 1 million students are still learning remotely.

The various reopening developments in some of the country’s biggest school districts are welcome news for national union leaders who have been trying to forge a path for schools to offer in-person learning, while the ongoing battles are a stark reminder of how far away the country’s public school system is from getting back on its feet.

Case in point: Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who has been emphatic about schools needing to reopen for in-person learning the moment all the safety mechanisms are in place, was on hand in Philadelphia on Monday morning to support the city’s union.

“Educators and students deserve safety,” she said. “They deserve schools that are open, that are safe. If other cities can do this, so can Philadelphia.

She added: “Finally, people are realizing that public education is important. It’s important for children, for communities and the economy. Now let’s actually fund it.”

Her remarks come as Congress is trying to push through President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus stimulus package, which would send roughly $175 billion to schools to help cover reopening costs.

The developments also come as school leaders await new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, whose officials have said to expect updated safety parameters for schools, including schools trying to reopen for in-person learning, perhaps as early as Wednesday.

Superintendents, principals and educators were vexed by the lack of guidance, best practices and data issued by the CDC and the Education Department under the Trump administration, which they said left them going it alone and vulnerable to the politics of the reopening debate.

Biden, who has pledged to reopen the majority of K-8 schools for in-person learning in the first 100 days of his administration, signed an executive order on Day One that directed the Education Department to issue best practices and build a database of reopening statuses and strategies.

Last week, the department’s Institute for Education Statistics released parameters for what it plans to include in that long-sought database, including, among other things, enrollment by instructional mode, attendance rates and frequency of in-person learning, all disaggregated by race and income.

“President Biden is committed to the safe reopening of schools and to addressing the educational disparities and inequities that the pandemic has exposed and exacerbated,” said Ian Rosenblum, acting assistant secretary of the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. “To do that, we need more information about how students are learning during this pandemic – and we simply don’t have it right now.”

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