Chicago teachers will not return to school this week, threaten to strike

The Chicago Teacher’s Union (CTU) has refused to report for work at public schools. In fact, teachers who work with special needs and pre-k students who had already returned to work are now being told by the union to stop showing up. The union has threatened a strike if CPS refuses to let them work from home:

The immediate implication of the union’s collective decision to reject in-person work because of health and safety concerns is about 3,200 preschool and special education students will return to remote learning Wednesday, just two weeks after resuming in-person instruction for the first time since last March…

“So it’s come to this,” the union wrote in an email to members Tuesday afternoon. “Short of some late-breaking change, *all* CTU members will begin working remotely tomorrow, Wednesday, January 27. And if CPS retaliates against members for exercising their right to a safe workplace, *all* CTU members will stop working on Thursday and set up picket lines at their schools.”

Here’s the backstory in case you missed it yesterday. Chicago teachers have been teaching remotely for months. They were supposed to report to schools this Monday for a full week of prep time. The goal was to get ready for the return of more students next Monday, Feb. 1.

On Sunday the CTU voted not to show up for the prep work in classrooms. The claim at the time was that this was not a strike because they weren’t refusing to work, only refusing to work in schools. Instead, the teachers wanted to continue working from home. Monday, CPS agreed to give the teachers two more days before reporting to work so they could negotiate, but students were still scheduled to return next Monday. As of today, that plan hasn’t changed.

CPS officials said all last week that the union’s collective refusal of in-person work would be deemed an “illegal strike,” indicating staff could be locked out of remote work and their pay withheld. But Mayor Lori Lightfoot said at an evening news conference Tuesday that “we’re not there yet.” Lightfoot said she does “not expect [CTU members] to violate the directive of their union” and CPS will allow remote learning to continue…

Lightfoot said she “remains steadfast” in her order for in-person K-8 classes to resume Monday, aiming to reach an agreement by then.

The union say they won’t return to work (in classrooms) until their demands are met. The top demand at the moment is for teachers to be fully vaccinated.

“Reopening is not the argument. The discussion, the debate is safety. That’s it,” CTU vice president Stacy Davis Gates said. “When we implement a safe agreement phase in vaccines, a health metric, accommodations that meet the needs of medically vulnerable households … those things are important.”

Yesterday the CDC issued a report stating there was little evidence teachers face a significant risk of getting the virus at school. In fact, the spread of COVID in schools appears to match the rate in the community at large. It appears be lower than the community level in elementary and middle schools. One study in North Carolina found that after 9 weeks of in-person classes there was not a single case of students passing the virus to a faculty member.

The CTU doesn’t think that’s good enough but a group of Chicago parents who are also doctors published a letter yesterday saying there was no good medical reason not to resume in-person classes:

We are parents of Chicago Public Schools students and healthcare professionals. With both our medical experience during the pandemic and our experience as parents, we strongly advocate for schools to re-open for in-person learning with multi-layered mitigation strategies to minimize spread of COVID-19…

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has made various demands for reopening, some of which do not align with scientific evidence. The 3% positivity rate is problematic, and schools, like in New York City, have safely reopened in communities with higher positivity rates. Given the rapidly changing landscape, the CDC has shared dynamic metrics for opening. While we wholeheartedly believe all school personnel should be vaccinated, school re-opening should not be
delayed while vaccination is in process. Vaccines are not the only strategy to prevent COVID-19 and it is unlikely all CPS personnel will consent to vaccination, just as up to 40% of healthcare workers have opted not to receive the vaccine to date…

Given the hardships children have endured due to the pandemic and remote learning, plus the robust data supporting reopening with safety measures in place, we strongly support efforts to have children back in schools. We want to see our city’s children–including our own–learning in person with their teachers and socializing with their peers. We stand prepared to help support the re-opening of CPS to in-person learning.

The best evidence doesn’t support what the CTU is doing and, more importantly, it’s bad for the kids who are struggling and falling behind at home. That ought to matter but it looks likely the union is going to strike unless Mayor Lightfoot and CPS backs down from demanding they return next week.