CHICAGO - Chicago teachers began voting Thursday to defy orders to report for in-person class next week ahead of elementary students’ return, actions the nation’s third-largest school district said could lead to "an illegal strike."
The Chicago Teachers Union fiercely opposes Chicago Public Schools’ reopening plans over safety concerns during the coronavirus pandemic. The roughly 355,000-student district, which went online in March 2020, has gradually welcomed students back. Thousands of pre-kindergarten and special education students chose in-person learning this month. Teachers who didn’t show were punished.
Roughly 10,000 educators in kindergarten through eighth grade are expected to report for duty next week, but the union’s House of Delegates approved a resolution late Wednesday to skip classroom teaching and continue remotely. Students in kindergarten to eighth grade have the option to return two days a week starting Feb. 1. No return date has been set for high school students.
Both sides have been negotiating for months with the union, saying the district hasn’t gone far enough in its safety plan and is putting educators at unnecessary risk. CPS officials say, among other things, it has placed thousands of air purifiers in classrooms and required masks. The district also cites a city study on private schools, which have largely remained open.
"We are only moving forward with our reopening plan because public health experts have made it clear that bringing students back is both safe and necessary, and we are fully committed to providing you the safe working environment you deserve," the district said in a letter to staff Thursday, adding that teachers would be expected to return to work unless they had an approved reason. "A collective failure to do so constitutes an illegal strike."
CTU officials disagreed.
The union’s collective bargaining agreement, approved after a 2019 strike, prevents the union from striking during the contract and district officials from locking out workers.
Teachers and other staff that have continually failed to report for duty without an approved excuse — there were 87 as of Friday — have been docked pay and booted out of CPS systems until they return. CTU has blasted the move as illegal. Some educators have continued to teach through recorded videos or Facebook Live.
It was unclear if the district would punish teachers who failed to show up next week. Union officials argued that if the district punished teachers the same way, it would be responsible for a work stoppage.
CPS officials didn’t immediately have further comment Thursday.
The union’s resolution would have its members stay out of the classroom until there’s an agreement on health and safety protocols. The union has asked for new metrics to determine when it’s safe to reopen and more widespread vaccinations, among other things.
The union’s roughly 25,000 members began voting by electronic ballot Thursday. If a majority approve the resolution by Saturday, teachers would stay at home Monday and could continue to teach students remotely. Several Chicago aldermen back the union.
"An overwhelming majority of our delegates are resolved to putting safety first and continuing to teach remotely," CTU President Jesse Sharkey said in a Wednesday statement. "In the absence of an actual commitment on safety from CPS leadership, the best assurance we have for the safety of our students and school staff right now is to continue remote learning."
More than 76% of the roughly 3,787 school employees expected to report for duty in pre-kindergarten and special education showed up, according to Friday district attendance figures. Among teachers, it was 72%, or 1,229 of 1,708.
The district hasn’t released student attendance data, but early district surveys showed roughly 40% of eligible students, about 77,000, expressed interest in returning.