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Reopening of Chicago schools in limbo

Supporters of the Chicago Teachers Union participate in a car caravan Saturday, as negotiations with Chicago Public Schools continue over a coronavirus safety plan.
Supporters of the Chicago Teachers Union participate in a car caravan Saturday, as negotiations with Chicago Public Schools continue over a coronavirus safety plan. (Eileen Meslar/Reuters)
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CHICAGO — A plan to reopen Chicago schools remained in limbo as last-minute negotiations about coronavirus safety measures with the teachers union stalled Sunday, amplifying the possibility of a strike or lockout.

About 62,000 students in kindergarten through eighth grade and about 10,000 teachers and staff members were expected to return to school Monday for the first time since March, part of the district’s gradual reopening plans during the pandemic. Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D) said Sunday that she still expected all teachers, including those in pre-K and special education who started in-person classes in January, to show up Monday. But she pushed back students’ arrival until Tuesday over staffing concerns, saying remote learning would be extended a day.

The Chicago Teachers Union has fought returning to classrooms in the nation’s third-largest district, defying orders to come to class ahead of students. The union has said that if the district locks teachers out of email and teaching platforms, which it has done previously, all teachers will picket. Such a move could shut down remote learning districtwide.

Chicago Public Schools officials and the union reported weekend progress. But by Sunday, both sides accused the other of not showing up at the bargaining table.

The union and the district have been fighting for months about issues including vaccinations, metrics used to gauge infections and special accommodations for employees who have concerns, such as a high-risk family member in their household.

Lightfoot, at times sounding exasperated, said she was going to “have to take action” against teachers who didn’t return to work. She declined to specify what that could entail. Those who previously did not show up for work were locked out of school systems and docked pay.

Public health officials say there’s growing evidence that children aren’t the main drivers of community coronavirus spread. They also say school transmission remains low when safety measures, such as wearing face coverings, are in place. But debates about reopening have taken place worldwide.

Janice Jackson, the district’s chief executive, took to national television Sunday to insist that it is safe to reopen Chicago schools with proper protocols. The district, which requires masks for students and teachers, has bought thousands of classroom air filters, deep cleaned schools and introduced a voluntary testing program.

“We believe that we have to reopen schools. We’ve been closed for almost a year now. And as a school system, we’re starting to see some of the effects of schools being closed,” Jackson said on CBS News’s “Face the Nation.”

District officials said Black and Latino students, who make up the vast majority of the roughly 355,000-student district, have been hit especially hard since going fully remote last March. Prekindergarten students and some special-education students returned Jan. 11 but went back to online classes amid the escalating fight with the union. District officials haven’t said when high school students will return.

Union officials say the district hasn’t gone far enough in its safety plans, for instance by not prioritizing teacher vaccinations, and is putting teachers at unnecessary risk. The union also argues that not enough students are interested to require all teachers to come back at once.

In a survey in December, about 77,000 students from prekindergarten to eighth grade expressed interest in returning to class. While pre-K and some special-education students were offered in-person classes five days a week, students in K-8 will get two days a week of in-person instruction with remote instruction on other days.

But attendance has been lower than expected.

About 6,500 of the nearly 17,000 eligible preschool and special-education students said they’d like to return, but only about 3,200, or 19 percent of those eligible, attended after the January reopening, CPS said.

— Associated Press