Negotiations between city and Chicago teachers union to continue into weekend

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez said in a statement Friday bargaining sessions between city officials and the teachers union on a return to the classroom remain productive but "must be concluded" this weekend.

By Raja Razek and Steve Almasy, CNN

(CNN) -- Bargaining sessions between city officials and the teachers union on a return to the classroom remain productive but must wrap up this weekend, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot told CNN Friday night.

The Chicago Public Schools system, which has canceled classes since Wednesday, said it hoped to have in-person learning again Monday.

"CPS is committed to working toward an agreement with the Chicago Teachers Union throughout the weekend, and we are dedicated to working day and night so we can get our students back to school next week, hopefully on Monday," the statement said. "We know families need to plan ahead and we will be sending additional communication over the weekend with a status update regarding classes on Monday."

Lightfoot told CNN's Anderson Cooper that she wants a deal this weekend.

"Our kids need to be back in school. Schools are safe," she said.

With classes just having resumed Monday after winter break, the Chicago Teachers Union voted to teach remotely, but the school district canceled classes, saying they want in-person learning.

The union has called conditions for in-person learning unsafe, citing inadequate staffing and testing as new Covid-19 cases and new hospitalizations among children in the city reached record highs.

Lightfoot told CNN if there is a need to shut down individual schools the city will do that.

"We have been doing that. And we have been doing that all year long," she said. "So, this is an unnecessary and illegal work stoppage and I have drawn the line. We are not going to remote for the whole system. It's completely unnecessary."

While district officials call the standoff a work stoppage, the teachers union says it is a lockout, because they want to teach from home until the current surge peaks, but the district canceled classes entirely.

Union delegates and city officials have been negotiating conditions to get teachers back in their physical classrooms.

Union President Jesse Sharkey indicated Wednesday teachers might not return to classrooms until January 18 if the stalemate continues. Teachers may return earlier if the surge subsides or the union reaches an agreement with city officials, he said.

The rift between the nation's third-largest school district and its teachers echoes a debate playing out across the country amid a Covid-19 surge fueled by the Omicron variant: When and how should students return to the classroom?

On Tuesday, the last day classes were held, the school system reported 422 new Covid-19 cases among students and 271 new cases among adults -- both record highs for the academic year.

Teacher union organizer Tennille Evans told reporters Friday teachers are ready to work "under safe conditions" and they are asking for "testing, testing, testing" among other mitigation measures.

"All we are asking is that we would like our students to test negative before entering in the building," teacher Briana Hambright-Hall said, adding "A two-week pause (in in-person learning) is not too much."

Special education teacher Dawn Kelly said: "We need to get our testing in order, a real testing program, a real contact-tracing program."

She said teachers continue to check in on their students and send them school work "anyway we can."

Teachers are asking for basic safety measures, she said.

Second grade teacher Falin Johnson said she was concerned about conditions at the schools for students and staff.

"I want to make sure that they are safe. I want to make sure that I am safe," she said. "I want to make sure my daughters and my elderly grandparents are safe as well."

She also called for an emphasis on testing.

"So I want to know, when can we get these babies get tested? 'Cause we're ready to go back in person when we are able to see that they do not have Covid and they are not risking the lives of their classmates or ourselves."

Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Allison Arwady told CNN's Wolf Blitzer Thursday while she understands teachers are worried, schools are not the source of Covid-19 spread.

Meanwhile, seven parents with children in Chicago public schools have filed a lawsuit against the teachers union, calling its actions this week an illegal strike and demanding the teachers return to work for in-person learning.

The complaint is asking for "damages in the form of lost income and the cost of securing childcare while CTU and its members were on strike."

"The point of our lawsuit is that the union has engaged in an illegal strike, and therefore they have been, they get to be the sole decider of whether kids go to school or not, rather than an engaged community and parents getting their say," senior attorney Jeffrey Schwab said.

"Obviously if there is a situation where a classroom or a school, it isn't safe for them to go, I don't think parents want them to go, but what the union has done in this case is they've unilaterally shut down the entire district," he added.

The Liberty Justice Center is a nonprofit law firm focused on educational rights for students.

CNN has reached out to the Chicago Teachers Union for a response on the lawsuit.

White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters the Biden administration is in touch with Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Lightfoot to "assess their needs."

"What we conveyed to you publicly and we conveyed to them privately, is that the President wants kids in school, and we have the resources to ensure that schools are safe for education ... and students."

Jean-Pierre pointed to funding under the administration's American Rescue Plan earmarked for schools, including $10 billion for testing.

Lightfoot said the city would do its best to help with testing, given the current supply issues.

"We're in a good place, I think, with both our Governor and the White House," she said. "But fundamentally ... as you know, there's a shortage of testing nationwide. We are going to provide as much testing as we possibly can."

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