Chicago teachers to defy order to return to classroom due to COVID-19 concerns

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Chicago teachers are poised to defy an order to return to classrooms on Wednesday, claiming the school system has failed to put in place COVID-19 protocols necessary for a safe reopening of in-person learning after a year-long hiatus.

Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), which represents the city's 25,000 public school educators, has been locked in negotiations with Chicago Public Schools (CPS) for months over a gradual reopening of schools for the system's 355,000 students.

On Tuesday afternoon, CTU President Jesse Sharkey called for a mediator to intervene in the negotiations.

Even though the two sides have yet to reach an agreement, the district has decided to bring back tens of thousands of elementary and middle schools students next week, and wants teachers to begin preparing on Wednesday.

"We need our teachers in order to run our schools," Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson said during a virtual round table with parents on Tuesday. "If teachers say they are not coming to the school building, we can't have students in the building."

On Sunday, Jackson warned that if teachers do not report to their schools on Wednesday, it would be construed as an illegal strike.

Similar labor battles have unfolded across the country, pitting teacher unions against district officials over conditions for reopening, almost a year after the virus shut down schools for 50 million students nationwide.

The labor dispute in Chicago came to a head on Sunday when the union said that teachers would not return to the classroom after more than 70% of members who voted opposed the idea. They favored remote teaching until a stronger health and safety agreement is reached.

Despite the vote, the district ordered some 10,000 educators to report to work on Wednesday, instead of Monday as planned. Some 70,000 elementary and middle school students who opted to take classes both in-person and online are due to return on Monday, Feb. 1.

The possible work action in Chicago comes 15 months after the city’s teachers staged an 11-day strike over overcrowded classrooms, support staff levels and pay.

In the current dispute, the union contends that classrooms lack proper ventilation and the district has failed to provide cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment. The school board says ventilation meets industry standards for classroom learning and that staff will be provided with adequate PPE.

UNION URGES VACCINATIONS

The union has urged school and city officials to move quickly to vaccinate teachers, who are expected to begin to get shots in mid-February.

Jackson has said that the district invested $100 million and "countless hours of planning" to ensure the school communities are safe.

CPS and public health officials have agreed that schools can reopen safely with mitigation strategies in place.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a study on Tuesday that suggested schools could safely open with the right precautions in place, based on data from a school district in rural Wisconsin.

Earlier this month, CPS began implementing its reopening plan, allowing 6,500 pre-kindergarten and special education students to attend in-person class. The district canceled those classes on Wednesday because of the expected teachers' action.

New York City schools have taken a similar approach, allowing elementary students to return to classrooms. With the gradual re-opening, the city's teachers' union has pushed for quicker teacher vaccinations and school closures when the city's infection rate reaches 9%, but it has not threatened a job action.

The teachers union in Montclair, New Jersey, just outside of New York City, refused to report to work on Monday as outlined in the district's plan. They claimed the buildings were not safe and the district has not been transparent with its plan.

The union representing educators in Los Angeles is pressing the second-largest U.S. school system for teacher vaccinations, more funding and the elimination of students assessments during the pandemic.

"We are going to have some tough bargaining challenges ahead and ... we have to be ready to fight," said United Teachers Los Angeles President Cecily Myart-Cruz on a call last week with membership.

(Reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Chicago; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

01/27/2021 13:31

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