Chicago Public Schools (CPS) students returned to in-person instruction Jan. 6 after nearly a week of a heightened, nationally televised brawl between the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

Tension between the two groups isn’t new. The recent argument marks the third time in Lightfoot’s tenure that CTU has taken labor action to address disparities and neglect in CPS buildings: there’s the 11-day CTU strike of 2019, the safe return to in-person learning standoff in early 2021 and this month’s job action for safety guarantees.

A surge in the omicron variant that began in December led the majority of CTA’s 25,000+ membership to vote for a switch from in-person to remote learning. The vote came in late in the evening on Jan. 4, and Lightfoot — alongside CPS CEO Pedro Martinez — canceled classes for Wednesday, Jan. 5. They also locked teachers out of their remote learning tools. 

On Jan. 10, after five days of missed instruction, the seemingly unflinching CTU House of Delegates and an unrelenting Mayor Lightfoot with CPS in tow came to an agreement, which went to the CTU’s rank-and-file members for an electronic final vote on Jan. 11.

Seventy percent of the CTU’s rank-and-file had voted as polls closed late this afternoon, with results made available to the House of Delegates at 4:30 p.m., according to CTU director of communications Chris Geovanis. The CTU’s rank-and-file approved the agreement.

“Is this good? Is this a deal? Absolutely not. This is the hardest time in our lives and we are being forced to be the adults in the room,” said Jhoanna Maldonado, a CTU organizer speaking on behalf of the union. 

The agreement includes an increase in the supply of KN95 masks provided by the district to schools, metrics and operational steps for switching instruction from in person to remote learning and monetary incentives to hire additional substitutes, all of which have been points of contention in the argument between CTU, CPS and Lightfoot.

With all of the emotional accusations and sensationalism being leveled by Lightfoot, Martinez and CTU, it is easy to miss the important details of the latest deal. 

So here are a few big takeaways to keep in mind after the final vote of the CTU’s rank-and-file members.

1. More COVID-19 testing in schools

The agreement establishes that the CTU will work jointly with CPS and the District Safety Committee to reach a goal of 100 percent of parents opting into COVID-19 testing by Feb. 1, using phone banking and other efforts as ways to reach them. This will allow for more COVID-19 surveillance testing, which means 10 percent of students at a given school can be randomly selected for COVID-19 testing on a weekly basis. 

CPS will provide at least 350,000 additional rapid tests that will be placed in school care rooms, where students exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms are sent for screening.

During the teachers union press conference on Monday evening, CTU Chief Of Staff Jen Johnson highlighted the increase in testing as a win. However, the union is concerned about burnout, because the tentative agreement is encouraging unionized school staff to volunteer to work the phone banks outside of the regular work day for a $1,000 stipend. There will be incentives for families to sign up for testing. 

Initially, the CTU argued for mandatory COVID-19 testing for all students, and parents who didn’t want their students tested would have to opt out of it. Lightfoot shot down that demand, citing that it could lead to lawsuits from upset parents.


2. Metrics for switching from in-person to remote learning

One of the biggest points of contention during negotiations was metrics for switching to remote learning. The CTU wanted metrics that would flip the whole district to remote learning, while Lightfoot and Martinez argued that that’s unnecessary. They preferred metrics that would instead switch individual campuses to remote learning. 

In the agreement, if at least 30 percent of a school’s teachers are absent for two days in a row, the school will flip to remote learning for at least five days. Additionally, during a COVID-19 surge, if more than 40 percent of a school’s student population is in quarantine, the school will go remote. During low to moderate periods of transmission, as defined by the CDC, remote learning is triggered if more than 50 percent of a school’s student population is in quarantine.

The shift to remote, however, is not automatic; it still has to be voted on by CTU’s school safety committee.

3. More KN95 masks for all students

With the agreement, CPS is promising to distribute more KN95 masks to schools for students and staff. After the fiasco with testing kit drop-off and collection during the winter break in December, union members are questioning the district’s ability to handle mask distribution.

On Jan. 10, CTU members voiced their desire for remote learning during a Car Caravan through downtown Chicago to City Hall. Photo by Alexander Gouletas // The TRiiBE

4. More contact tracing in schools

The agreement establishes that each school will have volunteer school staff who serve as contact tracers for student cases within the school. This will be managed through CPS’ Office of Student Health and Wellness contact tracing team. Volunteer staffers will do this work outside of their regular work hours, and will receive a “non-instructional rate of pay for each additional hour of work associated with this contact tracing.” The rate isn’t specified in the agreement.

This is an important addition for CTU. Since the start of the 2021-2022 school year, CPS schools have faced regular disruptions to in-person learning whenever COVID-19 outbreaks have taken place. In December, at Park Manor Elementary on the South Side, in-person classes ended for the entire school because of a severe COVID-19 outbreak. Earlier that month, a teacher aide at Carnegie Elementary School died from COVID-19 while the school suffered numerous infections.

The Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) has found — using contact tracing data — that schools were the likely exposure location for about 44% of cases statewide. Additionally, for nine out of the 11 reporting regions of the state, school is the most likely location for exposure. For Region 11, however, which is only the city of Chicago, there is no data shown on the site.

According to Chalkbeat Chicago, teachers are worried about adding another burden to a nearly burned out workforce by paying unionized staff to assist with contact tracing.

5. Incentives for substitute teachers

The agreement lays out several incentives that are meant to encourage substitute teachers to take on assignments: such as a $420 stipend for working at least 12 days in a month, and an additional $1,000 stipend for working at least 15 days in a month through the end of the third academic quarter (including six out of eight of Mondays and Fridays in a month), among other incentives.

6. Many CTU members are still upset with Lightfoot, despite tentative agreement

Many CTU members and Vice President Stacy Davis Gates are still highly upset with Lightfoot, CPS, and its handling of the COVID-19 crisis. In two separate press conferences aired simultaneously on Monday night, Lightfoot and Gates offered passionate clashing portrayals of the fight over in-person learning during the height of the omicron variant. 

Lightfoot said “No one wins when our students are out of the place where they can learn the best, and where they’re safest.” Meanwhile, Gates did not mince words. She accused the mayor of “leveraging Black and brown students when she is fighting… but she ain’t implementing anything in a [school] that looks like a plan of safety.”

is the editor-in-chief of The TRiiBE.