10 things to watch as a teachers strike begins in Chicago

For weeks, Chicago has been riveted by jousting between the Chicago Teachers Union and City Hall.

But now that a strike is all but assured, attention is turning to the 300,000-some students whose teachers and support staff will be walking out of schools. In the 48 hours leading up to the strike, there have been robocalls and e-mails to parents about contingency plans for child care, and nonprofit groups have scrambled to help children across the city who rely on schools for safety, food, and warmth.

Here’s what we’ll be watching as the strike begins. (And keep updated with our Chicago contract tracker.)

1. What will happen next with negotiations?

The strike will launch the monthslong negotiations into a new phase. The union has yet to agree to the city’s latest pay deal because it is holding out on broader school quality issues, such as staffing and class size. 

One of the sticking points between City Hall and the teachers union is whether to put specific numbers of support staff —  think nurses, social workers, special education case workers — in the contract. Lightfoot, who has verbally committed to adding hundreds of new positions across the next five years, said on Tuesday that she’s willing to put some commitments in writing. And the union has eased up on its demand, by agreeing to staff the neediest schools first. But they’ve yet to agree on the numbers or whether those positions will be funded by the central office or individual schools.

Lightfoot has similarly said that she’s willing to commit to certain class size numbers in the contract, but the union charged on Wednesday that the mayor was not willing to lower class size caps nor compensate teachers whose classes exceed the caps. 

Budging on either of these points could be costly. Lightfoot’s predecessor, Rahm Emanuel, paid for concessions he made in the 2016 teachers contract win in part by raiding an $88 million city account intended to help spur the redevelopment of blighted areas.

The union has urged Lightfoot to make a similar move — even though Chicago Public Schools is on firmer financial footing now than it was three years ago. The mayor has at her disposal some of the additional $181 million in tax-increment financing accounts (dollars generated from taxing neighborhood development to fund future improvements) last year. But at the same time, the city faces a budget hole north of $800 million.

2. Will parents and the public stick with the union?

In a recent poll conducted by the Chicago Sun-Times and ABC7, nearly half of respondents said they supported a possible teachers strike, and about two-thirds said public school children would be most hurt by a strike. 

Even so, public support could start to wane if the strike wears on for several days. 

Some 38% opposed a strike. About a quarter of survey respondents were public school parents. 

Elsewhere and in previous strikes, teachers have enjoyed wider support. In Denver last year, a poll found that 82% of voters supported a strike in the days before one began. 

3. What will happen inside school buildings?

City officials have said all schools will remain open during their normal hours and any students who show up will be served breakfast and lunch. But there won’t be any academics or after-school activities, and there will be minimal staffing, especially since support staff are also slated to go on strike. 

Two days into the strike in 2012, less than 7% of district students showed up at the half-day sites the district opened for students  — a small fraction of the some 403,000 students who were enrolled at the time. (The district later extended those hours.) Some parents also expressed concern about the supervision that was offered. And as the strike dragged on that year, the district eventually turned to online coursework to help students keep on top of their studies. By the end of the seven-day strike, the district said about 8% of students had gone to a contingency site or one of the nonprofit, park or library sites that were set up to accommodate families. 

4. How will students who rely on subsidized school meals eat?

So many Chicago students come from low-income families that the city makes lunch available for free to all students. That means even one day where students stay home from school puts many children at risk of going hungry. 

The Food Depository, Chicago’s food bank, has announced that it will supply “light snacks and fruit” at libraries, YMCAs, and Park District locations across the city. Some neighborhoods with many low-income families will also get a cold meal option. (Find the location nearest you here.)

That plan is in place for Thursday and Friday. “If the strike continues beyond that point, the Food Depository will monitor and respond accordingly in similar fashion,” it announced in a press release Wednesday.

Meanwhile, schools chief Janice Jackson said in a robocall to parents that schools, while minimally staffed, would provide three meals to students who showed up.

5. What happens to students who receive special education services at school?

Since classroom teachers and other support staff won’t be at a school during a strike, the district said students with individualized education programs — legally binding plans for students with disabilities — will not be able to receive specific support.

But the district is still legally obligated to provide services for students with disabilities, even if teachers walk out, said Chris Yun, a policy analyst at Access Living, an advocacy group for people with disabilities. 

“Depending on how long the strike goes, it may trigger compensatory services for those students,” Yun said. She suggests parents check their child’s service schedule in advance and document any missing services during the strike so they can be made up once the strike is over. 

On Wednesday, schools chief Janice Jackson said the district was working to contract with some nurses to provide care at some schools.

6. What about early childhood education?

Chicago’s preschool system is split between public schools, which will be on strike, and community-based programs run by nonprofits and small business owners, which will be open. 

Pre-K teachers employed by the district are unionized, and their classrooms will be dark. The same goes for the district-run early learning centers, such as the Barbara Vick Early Childhood Center on the city’s South Side. 

The city’s community-based preschools and child care centers will remain open, since their providers are not CTU members. Some community-based providers are unionized through Service Employees International Union’s Healthcare division. Those providers will be working because their union is a different local from SEIU73, whose support staff members plan to strike.  

7. How long will the strike last?

Probably not long, according to the advice that union leaders offered to parents on Tuesday night. Union chief Jesse Sharkey urged Chicagoans to gird themselves for “a short-term strike that is going to cause some difficulty and pain.” 

Last year’s strike in Denver lasted for three days, while Los Angeles teachers stayed off the job for six school days in January.

Then there’s a practical consideration: Teachers who strike don’t get paid. The union’s FAQ for teachers emphasizes that a paycheck expected on Oct. 25 will be based on pre-strike work and thus will be its regular amount, but the subsequent check — which will hit bank accounts as the holiday season approaches — will be thinner. 

8. What will happen at charter schools?

The 2012 strike was the first time that a major city had a large swath of charter schools, which typically are not unionized, remain open during a teachers union strike. Now, 6% of Chicago students attend charter schools, potentially heightening this divide. 

In recent years, the Chicago Teachers Union has worked to organize teachers at the privately managed, publicly funded schools, and teachers at 12 schools are now represented by the union. But because they are working under different contracts, their schools will remain open. 

9. What will teachers do while they’re on strike?

A strike can amount to a bit of a vacation for students, but teachers are not supposed to stay home. Each morning, the union expects its teachers to picket at their own schools from 6:30 a.m.-10:30 a.m., according to guidelines the union distributed to strike leaders. In the afternoon, the union will hold rallies “at various locations downtown” but hasn’t yet released sites or times. In 2012, the union brought members together in front of Chicago Public Schools headquarters as well as in a series of downtown rallies.

10. Will the weather cooperate?

The union’s instructions to strike leaders included an essential piece of advice: “Dress appropriately for the weather.” Right now, the forecast is for comfortable temperatures and clear skies for Thursday and Friday, ideal conditions for extended picketing by teachers and their union. Next week looks a lot wetter — offering one more incentive for the city and union to reach an agreement before Monday.