CHICAGO (CBS) — Despite the Chicago Teachers Union warning that a strike is not off the table if Chicago Public Schools officials refuse to bargain over the specifics for plans to begin reopening schools next month, Mayor Lori Lightfoot seemed undeterred in her push to get some students back in classes.

“We know that there is no replacement for in-person learning,” Lightfoot said Wednesday afternoon.

CPS officials have said pre-k and some special education cluster programs are scheduled to start in-person classes on Jan. 11. All other students from kindergarten through 8th grade are set to resume in-person classes on Feb. 1. However, Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady also has said the city’s COVID-19 case doubling time must remain at 18 days or more in order for schools to reopen.

“An important thing to keep in mind is that parents who do not feel safe can opt out. Teachers who do not want to come back, because they have underlying health conditions, they’re over a certain age, they have someone in their home, there is a process by which they can also certify that and opt out. But for me, it’s the science and equity, going side by side, if our kids need to be back in school,” Lightfoot said

The mayor repeatedly has said getting kids back in classrooms safely is a matter of equity, noting that Black and Latinx students in particular are falling behind while learning entirely remotely.

“There is a serious question of equity and achievement gaps among students, because of remote learning, and you’ve heard me say this before. Remote learning works fine for some, but it doesn’t work for others, and what we are seeing here in Chicago, is that our students – and particularly students of color – are falling behind. So, we’re always going to be guided by the science. That’s the one indicator that I care most about,” Lightfoot said.

Earlier this week, CTU said it is seeking an injunction from the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board (IELRB), to require CPS and Lightfoot to negotiate with the union over enforceable safety standards before school buildings reopen, calling the district’s reopening dates “arbitrary.”

The union asked the IELRB to halt the return to in-person learning until terms can be “determined by good-faith collective bargaining instead of by executive fiat.”

“CPS’ position has been, you know, ‘Talk with us about other things,’ but on the key question of whether it’s safe to open schools they’re saying they don’t have to bargain with us,” said CTU President Jesse Sharkey.

CPS officials said they have been talking to the CTU since Nov. 1, but the union has not provided any specific proposal to improve CPS’ current plan. It is a back-and-forth about a very emotional and divisive issue.

Sharkey said the union wants parent input and certain equity issues addressed prior to the teachers’ return. CPS Chief Executive Officer Dr. Janice Jackson has cited various studies and data showing a return to school is safe, adding that it is needed to counter “dire educational consequences” for many students.

Sharkey said teachers want to go back, but he also said a strike isn’t out of the question.

“So yeah, it’s potentially it could be, but like, it’s not what we’re talking about right now,” Sharkey said. “What we’re talking about right now is bargain with us. Let’s make a plan. We’d like to see that work.”

Lightfoot did not directly answer Wednesday afternoon when asked about the possibility of a teachers’ strike over reopening plans, but said she is committed to making sure students and teachers are safe when they return to classrooms. She said schools would have all the necessary personal protective equipment, social distancing guidelines, and other measures necessary to ensure school buildings are safe during the pandemic.

“We are highly incentivized to make sure that everyone in the school community – including teachers – are safe. I absolutely understand the concerns, I share those concerns, which is why we have done everything, and we will continue to do that, we will continue to listen, we will continue to engage, to make sure that our schools are safe,” Lightfoot said.

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