Chicago Teachers Union: City Has Stopped Negotiating

CHICAGO (AP) -- Talks over coronavirus safety protocols at public schools in Chicago have broken off after Mayor Lori Lightfoot and district officials walked away from the bargaining table, the Chicago Teachers Union said Friday.

The announcement came hours after Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson issued a statement saying they had made their “last, best and final offer," strongly suggesting they were through negotiating with the union.

Lightfoot and Jackson went even further Friday evening, saying in an emailed letter to staff and families that pre-K and cluster teachers and staff without approved or pending accommodations “will be deemed absent without leave" if they fail to report to classrooms Monday.

They will lose access to online teaching systems, according to the letter. Lightfoot has previously warned that online access will be cut off if teachers don't report to classrooms.

“We have the power to make sure this virus does not further disrupt the growth and progress of all our students,” Lightfoot and Jackson said in the letter.

The union earlier said Lightfoot's offer was woefully inadequate.

“The mayor's office would pause in-person learning district-wide only if there are COVID-19 outbreaks in 50% of Chicago Public Schools at the same time,” the union said. That means that infections found in more than 200 schools “would not be cause to consider the reinstitution of remote learning in the view of the mayor or CPS leadership,” it said.

CTU spokeswoman Chris Geovanis said the union would resume negotiations “at the drop of a hat” if Lightfoot and the city offered.

Lightfoot did not comment on the possibility of more talks.

“We have yet to receive a formal response in writing today from CTU leadership,” the mayor said in a statement Friday afternoon. "The ball is in their court.”

Classes were set to resume Monday. What this latest impasse means for students was not immediately clear.

After issuing a deadline for teachers to return to the classroom earlier this week, Lightfoot backed off to allow what the district called a "cooling off” period and further negotiations. And Lightfoot's demand that the union reach an agreement with the city by the end of Thursday did not have any immediate consequences because students were not in session on Friday.

One sticking point has been teacher vaccinations.

The union said Friday that the city has agreed to provide about 1,500 vaccinations a week for members but has refused to commit to an expansion of teacher vaccinations if Chicago receives a larger share of the state's doses.

The union also said the city has refused to improve remote learning even though the majority of students continue to stay at home and attend class remotely.

Its just the latest chapter in a bitter monthslong struggle between the nation's third-largest school district and the union over the reopening of schools, which went fully remote last March. The district has rolled out a gradual return for pre-K to 8th grade students with no definitive plan for high school.

Thousands of K-8 students had been expected to return this week. Pre-K and special education teachers defied district orders last month to return. The 25,000-member union countered by saying it would picket if teachers were booted out.

“We're deeply disappointed that the mayor has chosen to stop negotiating and instead move to lock out educators and shut down schools rather than work out our differences," CTU President Jesse Sharkey said.