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UPDATE 2-Chicago schools could start to reopen this week under tentative COVID-19 safety plan with teachers union

· 02/07/2021 13:23
UPDATE 2-Chicago schools could start to reopen this week under tentative COVID-19 safety plan with teachers union

Updates with comment from Jackson, background

By Brendan O'Brien

- Chicago schools could gradually start to reopen for in-person learning this week under a tentative agreement with the teachers union on a COVID-19 safety plan, a major milestone that will put an end to a bitter labor dispute and avert a possible strike.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced the deal on Sunday between the nation's third-largest school district and the Chicago Teachers Union, which represents 28,000 educators. The two sides have been locked in talks for months, with teachers demanding stronger safety protocols to prevent the spread of the virus in classrooms.

The Chicago Teachers Union said members have yet to approve the tentative deal.

"The mayor and her team made an offer to our members late last night, which merits further review," the union said in a tweet before Lightfoot's announcement. "We will continue with our democratic process of rank-and-file review throughout the day before any agreement is reached."

After Lightfoot spoke, school district CEO Janice Jackson outlined a plan to bring students, who opt to resume in-person learning, back to schools pending the union's ratification of the agreement.

If approved, pre-kindergarten and special education students would return on Thursday, Jackson said. It is unclear when their teachers would be expected to report to work this week.

Elementary school educators would report to work on Feb. 22 with their students returning a week later on March 1. Middle school staff would return to school on March 1 with their students would come back on March 8, she said.

"It's important to me to see our students return to the classroom. That sense of normalcy not only will help them become better educated but will bring back so much that has been lost throughout this pandemic," she said.

Over the last three weeks, tensions intensified between the two sides when union membership voted not to return to schools until a deal was reached. Jackson then threatened to lock out 13,000 educators from their online systems if they refused to report to work.

The union has said teachers would stop working altogether, form picket lines and strike if the district retaliated against any members who refused to teach in school buildings.

On Friday, Lightfoot and Jackson said agreements were reached on health and safety protocols, ventilation in schools, testing, contact tracing and creating health committees. (COVID-19 graphic: https://tmsnrt.rs/34pvUyi)

But the parties remained at odds on vaccinations for teachers and infection metrics used to decide when to close schools. Another sticking point was accommodations for teachers to work remotely if they have or live with people who have medical conditions, the district said.

The district has been teaching students remotely since the pandemic forced it to close school buildings last spring.

About 62,000 elementary and middle-school students signed up to take some classes in person starting last Monday. Some 5,200 pre-kindergarten and special education students who chose the same option had been taking classes in their schools up until Jan. 26, when the district canceled in-person instruction for them because of the dispute.

The district has yet to announce when high school students will have the option to return to school.

GRAPHIC-COVID-19 global trackerhttps://tmsnrt.rs/34pvUyi

GRAPHIC-Where coronavirus cases are rising and falling in the United Stateshttps://tmsnrt.rs/2WTOZDR

(Reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Chicago; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Lisa Shumaker)

((brendan.obrien@thomsonreuters.com; (312) 408-8561;))