Could Chicago actually shorten its school day? The latest twist in the city’s labor battle, explained

Could Chicago return to a shorter school day? 

That question is at the core of the latest back-and-forth between City Hall and the Chicago Teachers Union, which has said its 25,000 members will strike on Oct. 17 if negotiators do not settle on a new contract by then. 

The latest twist: The union wants teachers to have an extra 30 minutes of morning prep time for elementary teachers, returning the time teachers had to collaborate before then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel lengthened the school day in 2012.
Where the extra prep time will come from remains unclear. Some parents are concerned it would end up pushing back the start time of elementary school academics, so students would essentially start school a half-hour later.  

When Emanuel succeeded in lengthening Chicago’s school day and school year, the district struggled to hire enough teachers and recess supervisors. As part of the longer school day compromise, the district allowed teachers in elementary schools to start their day when students did, instead of 30 minutes earlier. 

What the city is saying: 

Depending on the campus, schools in Chicago start anywhere from 7:30 a.m. to 9 a.m. The school day runs seven hours for elementary schools and 7.5 hours for high schools.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot is holding firm on the current seven-hour school day negotiated by her predecessor. “We are never cheating our kids on the day of instruction,” Lightfoot said at a Thursday morning press conference, calling the initial agreement to lengthen the school day a hard-won victory.

Related: Read the latest on contract negotiations at #Trackingthecontract.

The mayor also said that schools would not make up any days missed during the strike. “We have zero plan to do that,” Lightfoot said. That places additional pressure on the union, whose members will not have a chance to make up any wages for missed days without an extension of the school year.

“We want to make sure we get a deal done.” 

What the union is saying: 

The union said it was committed to getting additional prep time in the school day to minimize the amount of work teachers had to do at home, a long-running complaint of educators who say they are overwhelmed with paperwork, required trainings, and communications with parents.

The union has said that its prep time proposal would not necessarily mean a shorter day. Leaders have suggested starting school with art or music classes while classroom teachers get their prep time — but that creates another problem: How the district would secure funding for additional such programs at schools. 

“It also affords our students the opportunity to have an art class, a music class, a world language class,” said union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates, who said the increased staff the union wants could help supervise children during an additional prep period. “Those things are not the norm in every school in our city. Providing some uniformity to prep time allows for those things across the board.”

What do parents say:

In comments on Chalkbeat Chicago’s Facebook page, some parents of elementary school children said they were not opposed to less instructional time in the school day. Rather than starting the day later they proposed longer lunch periods or more unstructured play time. “Even with only one extracurricular activity a week, I feel like my kindergartener does not have enough time in the day to be a kid,” Rebecca Shire said. 

One commenter, Leah Cunningham Pouw, said she wanted to keep the school day at the same length. “A longer day gives more time for learning opportunities (and recess) beyond math and ELA,” Pouw said. 

Others, like Maggie Baran, recognized that the change could come at a cost to parents, but said they support it regardless. “My kid’s school days begins and ends when my employer dictates,” Baran said. “It may increase child care costs for families but I can understand the need for time.” 

Jennie Biggs, a Chicago parent and outreach director of the parent group Raise Your Hand, said she supported the additional prep time if it was used to improve instruction — “I just feel like as a mom there is only so much time kids can sit in a school and do learning,” she said — but acknowledged there was no easy solution for how to ensure that teachers taking prep time didn’t mean support staff lost precious flexible time.

What else is on the table regarding prep time: 

Teacher prep time has emerged as one of the more contentious contract issues. The district rolled back its initial proposal that would have awarded principals more control over how teachers spend their prep time. The city says its latest offer preserves the status quo for high school teachers. For elementary teachers, it still proposes increasing principal-directed prep time by one period per week. 

The union, in turn, has proposed that all elementary and high school prep times be teacher-directed, and that elementary teachers get an additional 30 minutes of morning prep time. It also has proposed additional prep periods for bilingual and special education teachers.