Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot on What She Learned From Battling the Teachers’ Union

After a bitter fight, the Chicago Public Schools reached a deal with its teachers’ union last week to reopen elementary and middle schools amid the pandemic. By early March, students who have been learning remotely for 10 months will be back in the classrooms.

The agreement speeds up vaccinations for teachers, provides expanded accommodations for educators with medically vulnerable relatives and sets virus thresholds that would trigger a return to remote learning. With other big cities across the nation, particularly on the West Coast, locked in conflict with teachers’ unions, the deal is a potential road map for how local officials can have children return to the classrooms and help President Biden achieve his goal of reopening most schools within the first 100 days of his administration.

In an interview with The New York Times, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, a Democrat, speaks frankly about her acrimonious relationship with the Chicago Teachers Union and how she plans to rebuild trust with students’ parents. After campaigning to restore an elected school board, she now says that she believes reopening would not have been possible without mayoral control of schools — something that mayors in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Portland, where schools remain closed, lack.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

You said a goal of the negotiation was to help everyone feel safe, not just be safe. Can you expand on that?

This last year has been hell on people. It just has. Everything about the certainty of what our day is going to look like, what tomorrow will look like — all of that’s been taken from us. So dealing with people’s emotions, particularly as a leader in this moment, is absolutely a part of my day-to-day life as a mayor.

This last go around with the C.T.U. was very different than the 2019 strike and much more complicated, because this was about health and safety issues. The emotions and fears were real and raw. I am really glad that I got involved personally. I learned a lot about the fears of teachers, hearing it firsthand. Their fears about their household members, not just about themselves, were really real. It was important for us to create a pathway to address those, and I think we did.

There is concern in education that some of these labor fights are so difficult that all of the focus has been there, instead of on engaging in dialogue with the many parents who have significant misgivings about their children returning to school.

A lot of our residents are still very scared. They have great concerns about the virus. So addressing the needs of parents is really part and parcel of addressing the needs of our larger resident population through education, through outreach.

It’s also important for us to talk about what’s happened to our children during this. In this pandemic, social life has been completely torn from so many of our young people. Our 3-, 4-, 5-year-olds? Their social-emotional learning is absolutely central to their growth, and yet we see them learning on screens. We know that’s not the best way for them to learn.

Education fights in big cities are the Democratic Party’s family feud. Do you feel you had national support? Because on several occasions, when asked about the dispute in Chicago, whether it was President Biden or some of his staff members, they seemed hesitant to wade into labor issues.

I was absolutely fine with the way that it was addressed by the president and the White House. Every situation has a history and an arc. It’s hard to understand that and weigh in when you’re viewing it from a distance. I think the folks in the White House understood that. I felt like we had a lot of very candid conversations, and certainly we were sharing our perspective of things on the ground. They were appropriately deferential to let this play out here locally.

You have said that you want to be the voice for parents and students in this debate. But some families were troubled by the district’s move to lock teachers out of their remote learning platforms if they refused to go back to the classrooms. We know a majority of Chicago parents who completed a survey said they wanted to continue with remote learning for now. Do you feel that the threat of lockouts may have seeded distrust?

I understand that the notion that we would lock teachers out was disturbing to all. It should be. But it should also be disturbing when teachers say: “I don’t care what you say. I don’t care what you do. I’m not going to abide by the contract or the rules that have been set for my place of employment.” That’s chaos.

I have used the word “feisty” to describe the Chicago Teachers Union. You might choose other words. How would you describe the role that C.T.U. plays and its history?

Let me put it in a context of labor across the city. We have relationships with over 40 [organized labor] units. We have labor peace with almost every single one, except for two. The Fraternal Order of Police, which has a lot of right-wing Trump aspirations, and the Chicago Teachers Union. When you have unions that have other aspirations beyond being a union, and maybe being something akin to a political party, then there’s always going to be conflict.

The teachers’ union might say that its larger aspirations are to increase funding for schools and to achieve goals like police reform so students are not criminalized.

I’m not going to speculate about what their motivations are, but I don’t believe that’s correct. I mean, if you look at their spending, there’s a real clear indication of what their larger ambitions are.

Which are what?

I think, ultimately, they’d like to take over not only Chicago Public Schools, but take over running the city government. That’ll play itself out over time. I don’t really spend time, and certainly not in the middle of a pandemic, worrying about the politics. But politics intrudes, always.

I have noticed that some big cities with mayoral control of schools are open or moving toward concrete reopening plans. And some big cities with school boards, like Los Angeles or San Francisco or Seattle, seem stuck. In the past, you supported bringing back an elected school board. Where do you stand on that now?

We would never have opened without mayoral control. It’s quite clear. The fact that L.A. and San Francisco had to sue to force the conversation about reopening? Look, what’s easy, the path of least resistance, the political expediency, would have been to do nothing and just let the unions dictate what the state of play was going to be in education. That’s never, ever going to be the path that I take.

For a lot of families, it will be frustrating that this deal paves the way to only part-time school. And also that high-school students are not yet scheduled to return to classrooms at all.

I’m very focused on reopening high schools. High schools are more complicated, as you can imagine. Elementary schools can have the students in a pod stay static and have the teachers move. It is much more challenging to do that in a high school setting. But the archdiocese, which is, I think, the largest private school system in the country, along with a lot of other private schools, have had high schools open since September. There’s a lot that we can learn from their experience.

I want to see, in particular, seniors be able to come back together this year, so they have something of a normal senior year experience.

How do you envision fall 2021? Will all students be able to attend school five days per week?

A lot of it is going to depend upon, obviously, where we are in the arc of the virus. I’m watching very closely the development of a vaccine for young people, because I’m a parent of an under-16 year old. But also, obviously, in consideration of what’s happening with youth in our city.

A big part of this fight for me, and really the primary focus, was on student achievement. Not just grades, but really social-emotional learning as well. You can’t get that through a screen. I see that with my own daughter. And I see the educational gaps that are just widening in a remarkable and frightening way for Black and Latinx students. We have first quarter grades, and we see a significant increase in the number of kids that are failing. Every single day, 30,000 students just don’t log on.

I have heard the argument that these learning loss numbers are a harmful way to look at children at this time. Some have said, “Well, we don’t know if it’s the school closures themselves that are causing this educational crisis, or if the problem is the trauma for families caused by the pandemic.”

In some ways, does it matter? Children exist in an ecosystem shaped for them in large part by what’s happening with the adults that are at the center of their lives — or the absence of adults at the center of their lives. If the family unit, whatever shape that takes, has itself been dramatically impacted by Covid, where economic opportunities have worsened, where the emotional trauma has been heightened, all of that affects the children in that household.

Make no mistake about it. The schools are a tremendous source of support for them.

This last go around with the C.T.U. was very different than the 2019 strike and much more complicated, because this was about health and safety issues. The emotions and fears were real and raw. I am really glad that I got involved personally. I learned a lot about the fears of teachers, hearing it firsthand. Their fears about their household members, not just about themselves, were really real. It was important for us to create a pathway to address those, and I think we did.

There is concern in education that some of these labor fights are so difficult that all of the focus has been there, instead of on engaging in dialogue with the many parents who have significant misgivings about their children returning to school.

A lot of our residents are still very scared. They have great concerns about the virus. So addressing the needs of parents is really part and parcel of addressing the needs of our larger resident population through education, through outreach.

It’s also important for us to talk about what’s happened to our children during this. In this pandemic, social life has been completely torn from so many of our young people. Our 3-, 4-, 5-year-olds? Their social-emotional learning is absolutely central to their growth, and yet we see them learning on screens. We know that’s not the best way for them to learn.

Let me put it in a context of labor across the city. We have relationships with over 40 [organized labor] units. We have labor peace with almost every single one, except for two. The Fraternal Order of Police, which has a lot of right-wing Trump aspirations, and the Chicago Teachers Union. When you have unions that have other aspirations beyond being a union, and maybe being something akin to a political party, then there’s always going to be conflict.

The teachers’ union might say that its larger aspirations are to increase funding for schools and to achieve goals like police reform so students are not criminalized.

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