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CPS Says CTU Is Proposing 'Illegal Strike;' Union Medical Consultant Says Pandemic Is A 'Disaster' And In-Person Learning Simply Is Not Safe

CHICAGO (CBS) -- A day after the Chicago Teachers Union House of Delegates passed a resolution that would allow for teachers to go on working remotely after schools reopen for kindergarten through eighth-grade students, the Chicago Public Schools called the move an "illegal strike."

Teachers are concerned about possible coronavirus infections in schools.

The resolution would apply starting on Monday, Jan. 25, or whatever date Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the Chicago School Board require kindergarten through eighth-grade teachers to return to school for in-person learning. That date is a week ahead of the planned return date for K-8 students.

The authorization would continue until the union comes to an agreement with CPS.

The resolution is now before a vote by the full rank-and-file membership by electronic ballot, which continues through Saturday.

CPS said Thursday that pre-kindergarten pupils and some special education students have already returned to class on Monday, Jan. 11, with masks, social distancing, and other safety measures. CPS said it designed its reopening plan with safety in mind as the highest priority, and has met with the CTU leadership 60 times – often receiving ideas that have improved the reopening plan.

But CPS decried the vote to allow teachers not to come to schools, which they said would "cancel in-person learning for the tens of thousands of students who asked to return — and the thousands of pre-k and cluster students who are already learning safely in classrooms."

CPS said the current collective bargaining agreement includes a no-strike clause, and "the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board has ruled a strike of this nature would be illegal."

The CTU has not taken any vote to authorize a strike, but CPS said, "The decision by the union to remain out of schools and deny families access to in-person school is a decision to strike."

CPS reiterated that pre-kindergarten and special education cluster staff are to come to work on Monday, and all K-8 teachers and staff are to be at work on Monday too – a week ahead of the planned return date for K-8 students on Monday, Feb. 1.

CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates dismissed the illegal strike remark as a boilerplate claim on the part of CPS.

"To be frank, they've said that about every single collective action we've ever done. It's basically a form letter that they send out to our members all the time, so to be perfectly honest, we don't think much of it," Gates said.

She added that the vote was not on a strike, but on a decision to remain in remote learning and prevent a "disaster."

CTU President Jesse Sharkey added that CPS should be listening to the schools, and to parents – 70 percent of whom he said have decided they will not send their children to school for in-person learning. He said CPS should use "more democracy" and "less dictating" when it comes to making decisions about this issue.

Meanwhile Thursday, the CTU at a news conference introduced medical consultant Dr. Vin Gupta, a professor of health metrics and science at the University of Washington-Seattle. Gupta's main point was that the pandemic is out of control and in a state of disaster, and there simply is no safe or "moral" way to hold school in person right now.

"I've been really disappointed to see a movement not only in Chicago, but across the country, essentially leveraging a paycheck and forcing teachers and other adult staff across the country to in-person environments, in the middle of what is an out-of-control pandemic," Gupta said.

Gupta noted that 4,400 people died of COVID-19 in the U.S. on Wednesday alone. He said he and other epidemiologists have been producing forecasts, and all indications are that "the worst is actually yet to come" – with peak deaths not coming until February.

Moreover, the estimated peak number of deaths per day for February was expected to be about 4,000, and that figure ahs already been exceeded, Gupta said.

"These are the facts, and we've lost now upwards of 20,000 Americans at least week over week for the last several weeks," Gupta said.

The second leading cause of death, ischemic heart disease, only takes 9,000 lives per week, he said.

"We are in a full-on disaster, and I'm not trying to scare anybody here," Gupta said. "I'm just saying these are the facts."

On top of that, a new strain of the virus that was first discovered late last year in the U.K. is now believed to be everywhere in the U.S., and is also believed to be more transmissible, Gupta noted. While he said he had previously been on board with a reopening plan, that new strain -- the B.1.1.7. variant -- changed his mind.

Gupta said when the B.1.1.7. variant started growing exponentially and spun out of control in the U.K., it turned out that schools were a major driver of transmission and they had to be shut down.

Given all that, he said, it is not responsible to have teachers and staff in school holding in-person classes.

"This is not correct public policy to mitigate the loss of life," he said. "It just doesn't make any sense."

In addition, he said, "It's immoral that we're doing this while we're losing so many people."

Gupta said until those who are at highest risk get the vaccine, keeping school remote is "the tradeoff we have to accept."

At the virtual news conference, CTU Deputy General Counsel Thad Goodchild said CPS has failed to adopt proper public health metrics and has done nothing close to a proper level of COVID-19 testing. He said students are not being tested at all – while the Los Angeles Unified School District had shown numerous positive tests on the part of students.

CPS is also only testing about 20 percent of in-person staff per week, Goodchild said, calling CPS' public health guidance "very misguided."

He noted that Phase 1B of the coronavirus vaccine program begins just next week, and sticking with remote learning until teachers and staff are vaccinated – as they are eligible during that phase – would not result in a lengthy delay.

Goodchild also said CPS did not tell some employees they were eligible for the vaccine, but instead just threatened teachers who refused to come in.

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