Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) members are returning to in-person classes Wednesday after five days of district-wide closures due to a standoff between union leaders and the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) system.

CPS, the third-largest U.S. school district, and Mayor Lori Lightfoot were pushing for in-person learning to continue despite a citywide surge in omicron coronavirus cases, while the teachers union voted in favor of remote learning until COVID-19 cases "substantially subside" or until they reached an agreement over increased safety measures with the mayor.

As a result of stalled negotiations, CPS closed all in-person and remote classes on Jan. 5, Jan. 6 and Jan. 7, as well as Monday, when CTU and CPS reached an agreement to reopen in-person classes starting Wednesday.

"After a productive day at the bargaining table, I am pleased to report, CTU will end their work stoppage," Lightfoot tweeted Monday. "CPS put a great proposal on the table that both bargaining teams discussed in detail today."

A sign taped to the front door of Pulaski International School of Chicago reads,

A sign taped to the front door of Pulaski International School of Chicago reads, "School Closed," after Chicago Public Schools, the nation's third-largest school district, said it would cancel classes since the teachers union voted in favor of a return to remote learning, in Chicago, Jan. 5, 2022. (REUTERS/Jim Vondruska)

From remote instruction to testing, both sides have been negotiating nearly a dozen complex points of a safety plan that loomed over students' return from winter break. Other Chicago-area districts have had to increasingly shift online amid soaring COVID-19 cases after the holidays. CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said last week that closures should happen on a school-by-school basis rather than a district-wide basis.


Martinez and Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of Chicago's Department of Public Health, share the sentiment that omicron is less severe than other COVID-19 variants, and keeping kids out of the classroom is more harmful than keeping them in schools. More than 90% of CPS staff is fully vaccinated.

The tentative agreement CPS and CTU reached on Monday — which still requires a union vote — allows individual schools to return to remote learning if more than 25% of staff or more than 25% of students test positive for COVID-19. They also agreed to enhanced testing and contact-tracing at every public school and an attempt to increase testing consent among students' families.

Additionally, CPS purchased KN95 masks for students and teachers, agreed to bring back daily COVID-19 screening questions for anyone entering schools, and added more incentives to increase the number of substitute teachers in schools. Teachers will also be able to take unpaid leave related to the pandemic, either for their own illness or increased risk.


The union wanted to expand COVID testing district-wide, requiring tests unless families opt out with the goal of randomly testing at least 10% of the student and staff population weekly. The district agreed to increase testing but stopped short of allowing an opt-out program, citing liability concerns.

Families have been hesitant to enroll in the existing district program, which requires consent for guided weekly nasal swabs. In October, only about 7% of students had signed up. The number has slowly increased, but under the proposal, the district and union committed to increasing participation. The district received about 350,000 COVID-19 tests from Illinois over the weekend.

Students at the Mt. Greenwood Elementary School in Chicago depart after a full day of classes Monday, Jan. 10, 2022.

Students at the Mt. Greenwood Elementary School in Chicago depart after a full day of classes Monday, Jan. 10, 2022. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast) 

CTU has criticized CPS for being slow to roll out school testing and botching a holiday testing program, in which issues with mailing tests back to the district ultimately made thousands of samples invalid.

Both sides have filed complaints with a state labor board over unfair practices, and the rhetoric outside the bargaining table became increasingly sharp.


Union President Jesse Sharkey called Lightfoot "relentlessly stupid" in her response to school closures, while the mayor accused teachers of an "illegal walkout," saying they've "abandoned kids."

Sharkey during a virtual Monday press conference said negotiation with CPS has "been a very unpleasant experience." CTU Vice President Stacey Davis Gates accused Lightfoot of "leveraging Black and Brown students when she is negotiating."

"This agreement is the only modicum of safety that is available for anyone that steps foot into Chicago Public Schools," Davis Gates said.

The district has refused to pay teachers who don't show up. During negotiations, the union asked that no members be disciplined or docked pay and wanted an outside party to resolve disputes. The district did not offer any assurances that pay would be restored.


The school closures prompted a nationwide debate over whether public schools should stay open despite the surge in omicron cases, which has been coupled with far fewer COVID-19 deaths than previous case surges. 

President Biden has called for schools to remain open, and the American Academy of Pediatrics "continues to strongly advocate that all policy considerations for school plans start with the goal of in-person learning" due to the mental and physical toll remote learning has had on children across the U.S. since early 2020.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.