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With Vaccines Promised, Chicago Teachers Agree To Return To Classes

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Chicago schools welcome back a small number of students for in-person learning today. It's the result of a reopening agreement that came in the early hours of Wednesday morning and of a bitter battle involving teachers, school officials and Chicago's mayor. The deal includes expanded COVID testing and safety protocols. It promises vaccines for teachers and staff, and it delays the return of most students until March. Joining us now, WBEZ education reporter Sarah Karp. Hey, Sarah.

SARAH KARP, BYLINE: Hey, good morning.

MARTIN: Good morning. Who exactly is returning for in-person instruction today?

KARP: So today, it's preschool and some special education students who are moderately to severely disabled. These are among the students who the school district officials say are struggling the most with remote learning. But only 20% of them have opted to come back to in-person learning, so it's really only a small number.

MARTIN: What else does the deal layout? I mean, does it specify when other students are likely to come back?

KARP: It does. So this agreement establishes broad COVID-19 testing for both students and staff. It sets enforceable safety standards and protocols, and it says what ventilation classrooms should have. It also sets aside 1,500 vaccines a week for Chicago public school employees. One key point is that it does not tie vaccinations to reopening, which was a big thing that the union wanted. As for when more students will come back, kindergarten through fifth-graders come back on March 1 and sixth through eighth-graders on March 8. As far as when high schoolers come back, that's still up in the air.

MARTIN: So, I mean, at this point, teachers didn't get everything that they wanted. How are they feeling about this?

KARP: There's been a solid group of teachers and staff who wanted to go back. Some just really don't like remote teaching or feel like their students are really disengaged. Jen O'Connell is a speech therapist. She says that she's relieved that the back and forth between the union and the school district, as well as the threat of a strike, is now over.

JEN O'CONNELL: I feel like there's some stability now. Living in that unknown was just awful. Am I going on strike? Am I going to have money? What am I doing? You know, where are my kids going?

KARP: But the agreement was ratified with about 68% of the vote. So there's a significant number of teachers and staff who are really not pleased. Many of them feel like it's wrong for them to be forced back into buildings until they get vaccinated.

MARTIN: And parents, what are you hearing from them?

KARP: There was a group of parents here that organized around wanting to return to school. We talked to the head of that group yesterday, and he actually wasn't as happy as one might think. He says he and other parents don't like how bitter the situation was between the school district and the union. They worry about continued discord. On the other hand, most parents, about 70%, are keeping their children in full remote learning. And I've heard from a lot of them that they say that they're upset that the school district refused to agree to any improvements in remote learning. Also many are worried that when this in-person starts, their teachers will be teaching students in the class and at home at the same time. And a lot of them are worried that that experience will actually be worse once it starts happening.

MARTIN: Just briefly, Sarah, what do you have your eye on? Is there something that could disrupt this plan?

KARP: Mainly, I'm watching to see if there's a surge in new cases like in other places around the country. We're seeing a downward trend in cases here. But let's say the new variant takes hold and there's an outbreak all over. I think a lot of teachers and staff and also parents will be unwilling to come into schools, especially if they're not vaccinated. And if people are unwilling to come in, then it doesn't really matter if there's a deal or not.

MARTIN: WBEZ education reporter Sarah Karp in Chicago, thank you.

KARP: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROCKET MINER'S "MY FRIEND COMA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.