The city of Chicago and its teachers are fast approaching a showdown.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools have been planning to reopen for some in-person classes next week. But the Chicago Teachers Union is concerned about the logistics of returning to school while the pandemic is still raging.
In a letter to staff and families Friday evening, Lightfoot and school district CEO Janice Jackson said that if certain pre-K teachers and other staff don't report to classrooms on Monday, they "will be deemed absent without leave," and would have their access to online teaching tools revoked.
If the district makes good on that promise, it could lead to the second teachers' strike in the city in less than two years. The union has said it would strike if the district locks out teachers from working from home.
"We love your children," the union wrote in a letter to parents earlier this week. "We desperately want to be back in classrooms with them, but we are not willing to accept the inevitable illness and death a reckless reopening will inflict on our city."
Chicago Public Schools had planned for about 60,000 kindergarten through eighth grade students to begin returning to the classroom this past week. But facing pushback from educators, the city called a "cooling-off" period through Thursday so that negotiations could continue.
Late Friday, CPS proposed a staggered return to the classroom, with some pre-K and special ed classes starting Tuesday, kindergarten through fifth graders returning Feb. 22, and sixth to eighth graders returning March 1, the Chicago Tribune reports. By Saturday, the union had not yet responded to that plan.
A CTU spokesperson tells NPR the teachers will do everything they can to avoid a walkout. "We remain committed to bargaining for as long as it takes to reach an agreement that maximizes safety for our school communities," said Chris Geovanis. "We are going to continue to teach remotely until there's an agreement."
But an agreement remains elusive. The main sticking point is whether to accept CDC guidelines for determining whether it's safe to reopen schools. Around the country, some schools have been able to reopen relatively safely by following certain precautions, CDC scientists wrote in an article last month. The federal government is set to release new guidelines for reopening schools this coming week.
"The mayor's offer would pause in-person learning district-wide only if there are COVID-19 outbreaks in 50 percent of Chicago Public Schools buildings at the same time," the union said Friday. That's unacceptable to the union.
"CPS' rejection of CDC health metrics fundamentally undercuts safety in school communities," CTU President Jesse Sharkey said. "If they're serious about the science, which says schools are safe only when they're also getting mitigation right and community spread is low, then they need to stop rejecting the science-based metrics of the same agency they parrot at every turn."
Another sticking point is vaccinations: The union wants teachers to be able to get vaccinated before returning to work. But the city says there aren't enough doses to go around just yet.
"They want to prioritize teachers over every other resident in our city," Lightfoot said in a statement Friday. But the city only gets 5,700 first doses every day to stretch across the entire city, officials said. There is no stockpile.
"Here's what CTU wants: give CTU members — and only CTU members — 20,000 vaccines now," Lightfoot said. But in order to implement that plan, "we would have to stop vaccine distribution across the entire city for everyone else." Lightfoot said that's not an "equitable" solution.
Chicago schools have offered to vaccinate 1,500 CPS employees per week, and to prioritize staff living with medically vulnerable family members.
In a statement Friday, the union called the mayor's vaccination plan a " 'Hunger Games' system of vaccine distribution" that gives no priority to staff expected to return first, or those living or working in the city's hardest-hit communities.
"Educators forced back into buildings could still be waiting until June for vaccinations through CPS, months after the mayor proposes to fully reopen school buildings," the union wrote.
Another point of contention is whether employees with vulnerable family members should get special accommodations to continue working from home.
Chicago teachers previously went on strike for 11 days in October 2019, over issues including class sizes and having nurses and social workers in schools.