Chicago schools extend talks with union over in-person class

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 – Chicago Public Schools leaders extended remote learning Monday for two more days and called for a "cooling-off period” in negotiations with the teachers' union, citing progress but not a full agreement on COVID-19 safety plans for returning to schools.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson said in a joint statement that teachers would not be locked out of teaching platforms for failing to show up to schools “as a gesture of good faith,” walking back earlier threats that had prompted union officials to entertain a strike in the nation's third-largest school district.

“We have secured agreement on one other open issue and made substantial progress on a framework that we hope will address the remaining issues,” they said in a statement after negotiations Monday. “We are calling for a 48-hour cooling off period that will hopefully lead to a final resolution on all open issues.”

Talks, which have been ongoing for months, stalled over the weekend, ratcheting up the possibility of a strike as early as Tuesday. Issues have included vaccinations, metrics used to gauge infections and special accommodations for employees who have concerns, like a high-risk family member in their household.

Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey, who has said the union wants an agreement, said holding off on locking out educators is an encouraging step.

“We want to keep working remotely as we bargain an agreement to return to our classrooms safely," he said in a statement. "And we’re one step closer to that goal today, because management has agreed to stay at the table rather than escalating conflict or locking out educators.”

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. Jackson said all teachers, including those in pre-K and special education who started in-person in January, were expected to show up Monday or would be booted out of district systems as they have previously. But students' arrival was delayed a day because of anticipated staffing shortages. Now, students will continue remote class at least until Thursday, district officials said.

The union, which has defied orders to come to class ahead of students, has said if the district locks teachers out, all teachers will picket. Such a move, if approved by the union's house of delegates, could shut down remote learning across the roughly 340,000-student district.