Teachers union calls on Chicago to delay high school reopening by a week, but district wants to stay course

Trinity putting a green binder into her backpack.

The Chicago Teachers Union is calling on the city to delay its April 19 high school reopening date by one week in the hopes of increasing vaccine access to older students and their medically vulnerable family members.

The demand comes after weeks of near-silence about the negotiations over high school reopening.

Chicago Public Schools officials said Wednesday that they want to stay the course with an April 19 return date for students; teachers would return a week earlier per their plan. Officials said they are working with the city’s public health department on a vaccination plan for students 16 and older, but the district has not shared any details.

The city and union have not yet reached an agreement, but until now both sides previously described talks as productive. District officials said Wednesday they had met 12 times, and traded counterproposals.

High school schedules also appear to still be an unresolved issue between the two sides.

“We do not yet have a safe reopening agreement,” union president Jesse Sharkey said Wednesday morning.

District leaders have said that they are determined to reopen high school buildings to students this school year, and they set a target day of April 19 — the start of the final quarter — to bring them back. But the success of that effort hinges on lingering issues, from the status of the district’s labor agreement with its union to how many students will actually return for in-person learning. A little more than a third have said they will.

In a statement Wednesday, district spokesman James Gherardi said that the district’s elementary and middle school reopening had paved the path for returning high school students to classrooms. He called the union demand “disheartening.”

“CTU is choosing to create uncertainty for families and their own members when they know and privately agree that our high schools are safe and prepared to open,” Gherardi said in an e-mailed statement.

Officials have acknowledged the complexity of safely bringing back high schoolers amid the pandemic: Frequent class transitions throughout the school day make keeping students in self-contained pods elusive. Some of the district’s large, more crowded high schools would offer limited space for social distancing — though officials have noted the effort would be easier to pull off at the city’s under-enrolled campuses. 

A labor agreement between the city’s teachers union and district also remains out of reach. The union shared a list of its outstanding demands for the first time Tuesday afternoon, including remaining all-virtual on Wednesdays to give teachers more prep time. But it has not yet given a clear sense of the status of negotiations.

In a statement Tuesday evening, district officials said, with weeks of negotiations with the union behind them, they were on track to reopen schools April 19, and were developing a plan with public health officials to deliver vaccinations to students age 16 and over. 

“Following the successful reopening of our elementary schools, we remain committed to the April 19 return date for families who choose to opt-in to in-person instruction,” district press officer James Gherardi said. “As our discussions with CTU proceed, we will continue to update families on our plans to safely reopen high schools.”

Still, the uncertainty is frustrating high school families looking to plan for the remainder of the school year. 

“The parents are so in the dark right now,” Aimee Bar-Kam, the parent of a district sophomore, said. “Here we are at the eleventh hour without any transparency or communication, and it’s just so frustrating.” 

Much like with the earlier stages of school reopening in Chicago, which included prekindergarten to eighth grade students, along with some students in special education, many decisions about what school will look like will fall to individual campuses. One district principal said school leaders across the city are hard at work on reopening plans for their campuses. They are operating under the assumption that an April 19 start is still a go — and that all grade levels, from freshmen to seniors, will return.

District and teachers union officials both suggested last month that talks about a high school reopening agreement had a promising start, with a more collegial tone than the tense elementary reopening negotiations and with that earlier agreement serving as a baseline. But a few weeks in, some tensions did spill out: The district sent out a press release announcing the tentative high school reopening date and touting progress in the talks. The union countered with a statement criticizing the district for unilaterally putting out the news, noting that no agreement had been reached yet. In turn, the district shot back by sending reporters several emails that showed union President Jesse Sharkey had reviewed and signed off on the press release.

The latest release from the union notes safety concerns about the district’s reopening plan from teachers amidst rising COVID-19 rates in recent weeks. To address this, the union release said they want the district to modify high school schedules to minimize contact, and to vaccinate all students age 16 and older. That is “a critical need both as the virus surges locally and in terms of protecting school communities if CPS is planning to eventually reopen schools more widely in the fall,” the union said in Tuesday’s release. 

The district asked high school families to take part in a survey indicating whether students would return to school buildings in April. 

Of the 278,574 district students who would be eligible to return to school buildings this spring, 43% of families said on a district-run survey that they would return to in-person learning, school officials revealed at last month’s board meeting. That’s higher than the 37% of pre-K to eighth grade families who said they would return to in-person learning in the district’s December survey.

Those percentages were lower among the city’s 72,947 high school students, who have the option to learn on campus for the first time since schools closed last spring: 35.6% said they would return, 45.3% declined, and 7.5%, or nearly 2,000 families, didn’t reply.

Reina Torres, a sophomore at Marie Sklodowska Curie Metropolitan High School on the Southwest Side, is one of the students who has chosen to stay remote in the fourth quarter. Torres said her earlier experiences of cleanliness at her school made her distrustful of the district’s ability to contain the spread of COVID-19 at the school. She was also concerned about rising case rates, she said. 

“It’s really irresponsible of them to open up schools where there are Covid cases rising still,” said Torres, who has worked two jobs throughout the past year, one at a fast food restaurant and the other cleaning houses, to help support her family. 

But Bar-Kam, a district parent involved with the group Chicago Parents Collective, which has advocated for reopening schools, said the shortage of information so close to April 19 is hard on students looking to return and their families. Bar-Kam’s daughter is a sophomore at Whitney Young Magnet High School, a selective-enrollment campus on the Near West Side. 

She said the family would need to make transportation and other plans. 

“They can’t tell us the night before,” she said.

She said her daughter, who has kept up academically but struggles with the social isolation of remote learning, is eager to return to the campus. But she is not getting her hopes up just yet: “Until she’s sitting in a classroom, she doesn’t think it’s going to happen.”  

Nationally, large school districts have generally focused on bringing back younger students before turning their attention to high school reopening. Reopening elementary schools is easier and, research suggests, safer for students, who are less likely to pass on the virus or become seriously ill from it. Still, a growing number of high school buildings are opening their doors to students. New York City, which has offered a hybrid model of in-person and remote learning for younger students this school year, reopened its high schools last month, though a majority of those students opted to continue learning remotely. Denver also reopened its high schools earlier this year.

Anna Pavichevich, the principal of Amundsen High School on the city’s North Side, said the school’s plan is still a work in progress: Some employee requests for permission to work from home are still pending, and she and her team are working out other details, with input from students, parents and teachers. But she said she envisions separate cohorts made up of students from all grade levels coming in two days a week, on Mondays and Tuesdays or Thursdays and Fridays, respectively. Wednesday would be a virtual day dedicated to deep cleaning. Class sizes would be capped at 15, and the school will try to keep cohorts as separate as possible, emphasizing masking, social distancing and hand washing. 

She said despite the pending accommodation requests, she feels sure the school has sufficient staffing to reopen later this month for the roughly 40% of students who have said they will return to classrooms. 

“We expect glitches. We expect hiccups,” she said. “We’re still in a pandemic. But we feel confident we can do this.” 

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