Chicago Teachers Union Files Challenge to Delay School Reopenings

December 8, 2020 Updated: December 8, 2020

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) on Monday filed a complaint with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board seeking to put Chicago Public Schools’ reopening plans on hold, claiming the school district has not engaged in good faith negotiations over safe resumption of in-person learning.

In the CTU’s motion for injunctive relief (pdf), the union accuses the school district of refusing to bargain over the health and safety of union members and claims that the Chicago Board of Education (CBE) ignored the threat posed by the pandemic by unilaterally ordering its teachers and other staffers to resume in person classes starting on Jan. 11, 2020.

CBE chief Janice Jackson, in a radio broadcast last week said, “The question of whether students should be in school—we’re past that point. The mayor, the board, many of the leaders of CPS [Chicaco Public Schools], many parents feel like we need to be back in school.”

In arguing for the resumption of in-person learning, school district leaders have said too many children are falling behind with remote learning and that public health data suggests the rate of transmission in schools is low.

“We don’t see outbreaks associated with schools,” Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Alison Arwardy said, according to ABC7. “I don’t see them being significant sources of spread and in that context, we are really excited about being able to start bringing some students back.”

Arwardy’s remarks echo statements made by the country’s top health officials, including members of the White House Coronavirus Task force, who have said it is safe for schools to reopen.

Dr. Robert Redfield, head of the CDC, said at a Nov. 19 briefing that a growing body of evidence about the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus supports the view that schools need not be closed.

“Back in the spring, there was limited data,” Redfield said. “Today, there’s extensive data that we’ve gathered over the last two to three months to confirm that K–12 schools can operate with face-to-face learning, and they can do it safely, and they can do it responsibly.”

Redfield said data shows that the infections that have been identified in schools actually took place in the community and in households.

“The truth is for kids K through 12, one of the safest [places] they can be from our perspective is to remain in school,” Redfield said, adding that it’s important to follow the data, “making sure we don’t make emotional decisions about what to close and what not to close.”

In its complaint, the teachers union challenged the authority of the CBE to order teachers, as well as professional and paraprofessional staff, to resume in person classes.

“The CBE’s authority to take such unilateral action rests upon a slender reed: the claim that the CBE’s right to determine ‘places of instruction’ includes the right to unilaterally put its teachers and staff into danger without meaningful bargaining,” the complaint states.

CTU President Jesse Sharkey, in a statement, said the school district “has stonewalled us for months as we’ve been trying to bargain enforceable safety standards for our district-run schools.”

“We want our schools open as well, but we want it done safely, and not on the backs of the majority Black and Latinx students we serve,” he added.

The teachers union has called for the district to ramp up safety protocols, including providing a nurse in every school with personal protective equipment as well as COVID-19 screening, testing, contact tracing, and vaccination resources. It also called for smaller class sizes, as well as “social and emotional supports for traumatized students, and true upgrades to make ventilation safe.”

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