For the first time in a week, Chicago students are expected back in classrooms Wednesday after the city and teachers struck a deal over Covid-19 safety measures.
Negotiators for the Chicago Teachers Union and the city reached a tentative agreement late Monday, ending a deadlock that has become perhaps the nation's most contentious as the Omicron variant surge has raised questions about in-person versus virtual school.
The proposed agreement is subject to a vote by the union's 25,000 members, which they began voting on late Tuesday afternoon and will continue Wednesday.
Amid the impasse, 340,000 students in the third-largest US school system haven't been in school since January 4.
"I'm certainly relieved to go back to the classroom and see my students," said Kathryn Rose, who is both a Chicago Public Schools teacher and parent. "My kids are really excited to go back, too."
Caroline Robinson, a dermatologist whose two daughters are CPS students, told CNN she understands the unique situation the city, school division and teachers are in right now.
"I think that everyone is going through a lot right now. So for the teachers, they have life experiences. They have families to take care of. Each of them has a unique perspective through this pandemic. And then the schools, they have to stay staffed," Robinson said. "I found that during this pandemic that it's really hard to take a side. We just have to work together because at the end of the day, we need to educate our kids, and that's the only side to take."
The tentative agreement includes enhanced Covid-19 testing in schools and will extend through the rest of the school year, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said.
"I'm hopeful will have a stable, uneventful rest of the school year," she added. Lightfoot announced Tuesday she tested positive for Covid-19.
The White House "very much welcome(s) the reopening of Chicago schools," press secretary Jen Psaki said, noting the administration was "in touch on a regular basis" with Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker and Lightfoot.
Coronavirus testing in schools will ramp up to 10% of students in each school being tested each week, Chicago Teachers Union chief of staff Jen Johnson said. Some 350,000 rapid antigen tests were delivered to the school district to help address testing concerns, Pritzker said Monday night.
The Chicago Department of Public Health announced it was distributing 1.9 million KN95 masks into communities this week. Dr. Allison Arwady, CDPH commissioner, said officials made sure Chicago Public Schools had some for staff.
"We know a lot of people -- frankly even a 50 cent or one dollar mask is just one extra cost at a time that is difficult," Arwady said, adding that they have more than 100 community-based organizations -- such as churches and libraries -- helping to distribute the masks that are an upgrade from cloth masks.
The mayor's administration will work with the teachers union, or CTU, in engaging families to increase testing consents, Lightfoot said. "That's a critical part of it," she said. "We want to get to as high a number in testing consents as we possibly can."
The proposal includes details on contact tracing and new incentives to increase the number of substitutes in the district, the mayor said.
The two sides also "reached an agreement on the metrics for, at a school-based level, for when we needed to convert a classroom or school to go remote. Not surprisingly, the component parts of that depend upon staff and or student absences," she said.
More details of the deal were expected to be released after union's full rank-and-file membership begins voting on it Tuesday afternoon. The agreement is expected to pass, a union official said.
How the stalemate over school evolved
The confrontation over in-person classes began January 4 when CTU voted to begin teaching virtually amid rising Covid-19 cases in the school system. In response, the school district canceled classes.
The CTU's House of Delegates voted Monday to suspend the remote work action while its rank-and-file members vote on the proposed agreement.
Amid that voting process, students will return to in-person instruction Wednesday, Chicago Public Schools said in a letter to families. A written document with full details of the agreement would be released after CTU members approved the deal, Lightfoot said.
"I'm not going to say this is a home run," said CTU President Jesse Sharkey. "We're happy it's over, but we're not happy we had to go through it in the first place."
"We're still working out some of the details, but we anticipate information to go to members tomorrow about opening polls at some point tomorrow," Johnson said at a news conference Monday night.
There's a desire for members to "have time to meet with their colleagues ... and discuss the terms and really grapple with the strategic question of what is and isn't achievable in this moment with this mayor, and then, you know, keep ballots open for sufficient time to have that kind of dialog and debate."
CTU would also probably have another all-member meeting while the voting window is open to discuss details of the agreement, Johnson said.
"We understand that people want to be able to voice their choice on a timetable that makes sense with what's in the agreement, and we'll have to balance that with ensuring that votes are able to come in," Johnson said.
District last week notched record-high Covid-19 cases
On the last day students were in classrooms, Chicago Public Schools reported 422 new Covid-19 cases among students and 271 new cases among adults -- both record highs for the academic year.
CTU originally proposed resuming in-person teaching January 18, "unless (the Chicago Department of Public Health) or the State of Illinois determine that public health conditions are not safe for in-person school at the time."
This isn't the first time school has been canceled over an impasse between the teachers' union and Lightfoot.
In 2019, the same year Lightfoot took office, more than 25,000 Chicago educators went on strike to demand more support staff, higher raises and limits on class sizes.
The 11-day strike ended when the city agreed to increase school staffing, including more school nurses and 209 more social worker positions -- enough for one social worker at each school.
The deal also included more funding to reduce oversized K-12 classrooms and more funding for recruitment and training.
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