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Chicago teachers, district says COVID-19 safety plan talks to continue over the weekend

 CHICAGO (Reuters) - Chicago teachers and the school district said on Friday talks will continue this weekend in hopes of reaching an COVID-19 safety plan agreement that would avoid work stoppages and allow in-person classes to resume for thousands of elementary and middle school students.

The Chicago Teachers Union, representing 28,000 public school educators, has been locked in negotiations with Chicago Public Schools, the nation’s third-largest school district, for months over a plan to gradually reopen schools for in-person learning.

Both sides say discussions are focused on ventilation, cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment. Testing of teachers and students, teacher vaccinations and infection metrics used to decide when to close schools are also on the table.

One of the main demands is accommodations for teachers to work remotely if they suffer from or live with people who have medical conditions, CTU officials said on Friday.

The lack of an agreement jeopardizes the district’s plan to resume in-person classes for some elementary and middle students on Monday. Rank-and-file members voted last week 71% in favor of staying remote and not going back into their schools until their needs are met.

“Negotiations are at a sensitive place. We will obviously keep talking and we want an agreement,” said CTU President Jesse Sharkey said.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who oversees the district, said the two sides were at a stalemate but negotiations were to continue through the weekend if needed to come to an agreement.

“CTU leadership has failed and left us with a big bag of nothing,” she told a news conference on Friday night. “We remain fully committed to reaching an agreement and getting our kids safely back in school.”

Some 62,000 elementary and middle students have signed up to take some of their classes in person starting on Monday. Another 5,200 pre-kindergarten and special students who choose the same option had been taking classes in their schools up until Tuesday, when the district canceled in-person instruction for them for the rest of the week because of the dispute.

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CTU had warned on Tuesday that teachers will be ready to picket if the district disciplined any of those who were scheduled to come in and prepare for in-person class over the last week.

Sharkey said on Friday teachers who have not been present have received warning letters from the district, which is threatening to lock teachers out of their remote systems on Monday if they do not report to work.

“They can’t bully us,” Sharkey said.

Similar labor disputes have unfolded across the U.S., pitting teacher unions against district officials over plans to reopen, almost a year after the virus shut down schools for 50 million students nationwide.

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