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Chicago Teachers Union OKs Deal To Return To Class, With Vaccines Promised

Chicago teachers have voted to accept an agreement for returning to in-person classes in the coming weeks. Here, a woman holds a sign at a car caravan in support of teachers' call for more safety precautions.
Max Herman
NurPhoto via Getty Images
Chicago teachers have voted to accept an agreement for returning to in-person classes in the coming weeks. Here, a woman holds a sign at a car caravan in support of teachers' call for more safety precautions.

Updated at 10:20 a.m. ET

Chicago students will start returning to school for in-person classes this week, after the city and the teachers' union reached an agreement on how to reopen schools safely. The deal provides for teachers and staff to receive vaccines, prioritized according to their return to school buildings.

The agreement calls for Chicago Public Schools to provide "at least 1,500 first vaccine doses per week" to employees, with second doses guaranteed.

No teachers "will be required to resume in-person learning prior to having the opportunity to be fully vaccinated," it states.

The deal lays out health metrics that would trigger a 14-day "pause" in school operation, including a sustained rise in COVID-19 test positivity rates. Specific classrooms would also be put on pause if a positive case is found during a contagious period. The discovery of three or more cases within two weeks at any one school would also force its closure.

Despite the agreement, most of Chicago's students aren't likely to sign up for in-class learning in the coming weeks. The district's survey of parents in December found that only around 37% of eligible students planned to return to classrooms rather than continue remote learning.

The deal follows months of impasse and counter-accusations. The city's board of education had recently threatened to lock out thousands of teachers from their remote classrooms if they didn't return to schools for on-premises learning — which in turn raised concern that the Chicago Teachers Union might go on strike.

With a ratified agreement now in hand, CTU President Jesse Sharkey said in an email to union members that the deal puts teachers "in a vastly better position than we were in November."

Sharkey also sharply criticized both Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the school district, calling their approach to the COVID-19 pandemic for schools "a stain on the record of their administration."

Lightfoot and school officials have insisted their plans are safe, and they "have emphasized research showing that school-based COVID-19 transmission rates are relatively low," as member station WBEZ reports.

Lightfoot and CPS CEO Janice Jackson said in a statement that the deal "ensures families have options to choose in-person learning and make a plan that is best for them."

The union vote to ratify the agreement, they added, "reaffirms the strength and fairness of our plan, which provides families and employees certainty about returning to schools" with health and safety protocols in place.

The Chicago Board of Education is appointed by the mayor. But citing the dispute over safety measures, Sharkey said, "It's time for mayoral control of our public schools to end." He noted that the union approved a no-confidence vote on the mayor and Chicago Public Schools' leadership on Monday.

In the end, the teachers voted 13,681 to 6,585 in favor of accepting the deal, which the union said "represents the absolute limit to which CPS was willing to go at the bargaining table to guarantee a minimum number of guardrails for any semblance of safety in schools."

The agreement includes a phase-in plan to reopen schools in Chicago, where public schools underwent mass closures last March. The first pre-K and special education students will return to classes on Thursday. Students from kindergarten through 5th grade will return to buildings on March 1, with higher grades returning in the following weeks.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.