Chicago schools reopening uncertain as union talks stall

Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks to reporters after visiting preschool classrooms at Dawes Elementary School in Chicago, Monday, Jan. 11, 2021. Monday was the first day of optional in-person learning for preschoolers and some special education students in Chicago Public Schools after going remote last March due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times via AP, Pool)
Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks to reporters after visiting preschool classrooms at Dawes Elementary School in Chicago, Monday, Jan. 11, 2021. Monday was the first day of optional in-person learning for preschoolers and some special education students in Chicago Public Schools after going remote last March due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times via AP, Pool) (Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times)

CHICAGO – A plan to reopen Chicago schools remained in limbo as last-minute negotiations over COVID-19 safety measures with the teachers' union stalled Sunday, amplifying the possibility of a strike or lockout.

Roughly 62,000 students and about 10,000 teachers and staff in K-8 were expected to start school Monday for the first time since last March, part of the district's gradual reopening plans during the pandemic. Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Sunday she still expected all teachers, including those in pre-K and special education who started in-person earlier 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 district-wide.

Chicago Public Schools officials and the union reported weekend progress on issues including contact tracing and ventilation. But by Sunday evening, both sides accused each other of failing to show up at the bargaining table and said significant disagreements remained.

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

Lightfoot said at a news conference that she was going to “have to take action” against teachers who didn't report for work. She declined to specify what that could entail. Those who previously failed to show up for work were locked out of school systems and docked pay. Union officials held a news conference later Sunday, saying without protective measures such as widespread vaccinations remote learning was safest.

The district’s CEO, Janice Jackson, took to national television Sunday to insist it was safe to reopen Chicago schools with proper protocols. The district, which requires masks for students and teachers, has purchased thousands of classroom air filters, deep cleaned schools and rolled out 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 told CBS’ “Face the Nation.”