USA

To open CPS schools, teachers union has demands — but does the city have to meet them?

Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey, left, and Vice President Stacy Davis Gates, center, speak on Oct. 3, 2019, during last year's teachers strike.

Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey, left, and Vice President Stacy Davis Gates, center, speak on Oct. 3, 2019, during last year's teachers strike. (Abel Uribe / Chicago Tribune)

Before they return to classrooms during a rapidly evolving pandemic, Chicago Public Schools educators have a list of demands they want met — from small enough class sizes to a nurse and social worker or counselor in every school every day.

Most Chicago Teachers Union members who responded to a recent survey said they “should not or might not” return to classrooms in the fall without a detailed plan and certain resources in place, including remote learning options for vulnerable students and staff members; an indoor mask requirement; a student transportation plan that includes Chicago Transit Authority buses and trains; and computers and internet for every pupil.

While it’s not yet certain if in-person classes will resume this fall, the district already has committed to some measures on CTU’s list in the event that they do. That includes mandatory face coverings, providing a limited set to students and staff members, daily temperature checks, making hand sanitizer available throughout buildings, and cleaning and disinfection protocols.

But class size and flexibility for vulnerable students and school employees are especially pressing demands, said Michelle Gunderson, a first grade teacher at Nettelhorst Elementary.

A member of the state’s Transition Advisory Workgroup that came up with guidance released last month for returning to classrooms, Gunderson said she was proud of the panel’s work, but also disappointed with some of its final language, such as a call for social distancing “as much as possible.” In her view, it should have been “social distancing, period.”

“It felt watered down in the end,” she said, but noted the difficulty in coming up with guidance for a state where some small counties have recorded few COVID-19 cases while others had thousands. Whenever schools do open, she said, not only will parents have to decide whether to send children, but teachers will have to decide if they feel safe coming to school.

And though she contributed to the state guidance, Gunderson said she’s aware of the remaining challenges. Recently, when she took measurements in her classroom and tried to visualize a school day, it was tough to envision 6- and 7-year-olds controlling themselves in a limited space and wearing masks for a seven-hour-day, which she said CPS has not ruled out.

The state guidance calls for face coverings indoors, gatherings limited to 50 people or fewer, stringent schoolwide cleaning, and symptom screenings and temperature checks for anyone entering a school. It also suggested schools stagger start times or alternate remote learning days with in-person classes for different groups of students.

But the state left it up to each of Illinois’ 852 school districts to settle on its own reopening plans.

“Back when we were working on the state guidance and things were looking good in Illinois, we were (looking at) the possibility of beginning with children so we could form relationships with the understanding that at any minute we may have to shift into remote schooling,” Gunderson said. “I think when we look at the new statistics nationally, the tables might be changing now.”

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has said an announcement on schools would be coming “soon,” as CPS is working on various contingency plans. And Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady on Friday told reporters an announcement about schools would be coming next week, according to published reports.

The discussion comes as President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are pushing for schools across the country to reopen this fall.

CPS announced on Thursday that summer sports programs could resume as soon as Monday under careful conditions, while summer school remains virtual. District leaders also have said that once guidelines are approved, schools will create individual plans, with input from local school councils and parent groups.

As CTU and city officials continue to negotiate, with nearly two months to go before the traditional start of school, parents are growing increasingly anxious to know what to expect for their children in September.

“There’s a lot of anxiety being built up because people have no idea what the district is going to do,” said Troy LaRaviere, president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association.

Many principals want more from CPS, including a process for checking people in and out and the staffing to make it work, including nurses, he said. They also want better ventilation in some schools, where he said it can be “hard enough to breathe without a mask.”

On a phone call Friday, the majority of about 40 principals said they thought school should start remotely in the fall, with clear criteria for moving to a hybrid model, LaRaviere said. Even then, many administrators are medically vulnerable, and exposure to hundreds of children plus staff members would put them at great risk, he said.

In a prior CPAA survey, more than half of about 500 school leaders who responded said they have a high-risk condition or live with someone who does.

University of Illinois labor professor Bob Bruno said the district may have to negotiate with teachers over their demands that involve working conditions because the last academic year ended in remote learning situations, so a return to school would be considered “a change in status quo.”

“Particularly where something is changed, the union can demand to bargain the impacts of that change, and the employer has to sit down with them in good faith ... before the school district can implement any change,” Bruno said. “And it can be a bit of a contest to sort of determine when the parties have bargained issues as much as they can, (but then) the employer does have broad prerogative to make decisions about operations of schools.”

An 11-day Chicago teachers strike in the fall ended bitterly.

Yet, for a while when the coronavirus hit the city, the union and CPS tried to put on a united front. In early March, when a classroom aide at Vaughn Occupational High School became the first known case in the school district and the sixth in the state, they worked together to coordinate a response.

But while the Vaughn community was still in a 14-day period of home quarantine, the two sides were back at odds, with the CTU making public demands for all schools in the district to close as the pandemic continued to spread.

When Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced schools statewide would close starting March 17 if they had not already, just hours after Lightfoot said she had no plans to close schools, union leaders praised the governor’s leadership.

Conflicts have since surfaced over CPS’ remote learning grading policy, disparities in digital access throughout the city, and conditions for reopening school buildings.

Though the district can set policy for grading pupils, the union has the right to bargain its impact, such as how grades factor into teacher evaluations, Bruno said. Class size is a similar issue.

“I don’t know if we have the legal right to ask for class size, but we have the health and safety right,” Gunderson said, pointing to a “safe and healthy work environment” clause in the union’s contract.

Gunderson said it’s too early to expect the district to have final plans for the fall, but it’s fair to expect it to be inviting CTU to the table more than has happened and to start getting public input on its proposals.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a wait-and-see approach from a teacher standpoint or principal standpoint because acting brashly doesn’t make any sense right now,” Gunderson said. “But I do think it’s time for CTU leadership and CPS leadership to come to the table and start talking about possibilities.”

Rather than reopen the contract, Gunderson suggested an official memorandum of understanding could be a peaceful resolution.

CPS officials on Friday said they have “been engaged in regular discussions with CTU leadership as we work to develop a draft framework for a potential return to classrooms.” CPS is “committed” to bargaining with CTU on how reopening schools will affect members, but adamant the contract won’t be reopened.

At a news conference in May, when asked about the union wanting to bargain over the impact of COVID-19 and class sizes, Lightfoot cut off the question.

“That’s not gonna happen. That’s not gonna happen,” Lightfoot said. “We’re not reopening the bargaining agreement. Of course, as always, CPS is in regular dialogue with the CTU. ... We’ll be in conversation with them, but we’re not tearing up the collective bargaining agreement that we just forged last fall. There will be plenty of time for discussion, but first and foremost we are going to be guided by what the public health data tells us and hopefully we’ll have a constructive conversation with the CTU leadership.”

To that, CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates told the Tribune the union wasn’t trying to reopen contract talks, but to bargain over the pandemic’s impact.

“Going back into a dangerous workspace would quintessentially be something to bargain about. ... We get to bargain over working conditions, we get to bargain over the impact of COVID-19,” Davis Gates said.

While the teachers contract phases in additional nurses and social workers so that every school has them by the time it expires, union members are calling on CPS to speed up that staffing, Davis Gates said.

Still, Davis Gates said union officials were surprised when Arwady was quoted in news stories on Friday saying that information on the return to school would come next week. Davis Gates said CTU leaders have been meeting with CPS on a weekly basis, but few details and no full proposals had been exchanged.

“This should not be a fight, this should be an opportunity for collaboration. It’s clear to the CTU that the real enemy in this is Donald Trump and his merry band of science deniers. If we can agree that’s our real enemy ... we should be working together.”

The Tribune’s Gregory Pratt contributed.

Football news:

Barcelona and Bayern have won the Champions League 10 times. 6 other participants of the 1/4 final of 0 cups
Gennaro Gattuso: Napoli fell asleep for half an hour and gave Barca victory. We dominated and hit more often
Lewandowski finished off Chelsea: 2 goals and 2 assists. His statistics this season are more than space
Barca flick: Not focusing on Messi. We want to show our strengths
Lewandowski scored 7 (3+4) points in two games with Chelsea and participated in all of Bayern's goals
Messi has been scoring in the Champions League for 16 years. More only have Raul-17
Luis Suarez: the main Thing is that Barcelona goes further. Bayern are one of the candidates to win the Champions League, just like other teams