Speaking to reporters before he rang the bell at Clemente High School this morning, CPS chief Jean-Claude Brizard said school officials are making "steady progress" in contract talks with teachers as a strike deadline looms.
But he quickly added, "At the same time we need to finish this," saying the stress of a threatened strike has been "tremendous" on families.
Hundreds of thousands of Chicago Public Schools students returned to class today, but the Chicago Teachers Union has set a strike date for next Monday.
The two sides continued talks Monday as thousands of union workers clad in red T-shirts filled Daley Plaza during a Labor Day rally to support the teachers union. CTU President Karen Lewis told the crowd she remains "hopeful" that a deal can get done to avert a teachers strike.
Over the next few days, Lewis said, the union will continue to negotiate and "work as hard as we can to get a fair contract."
She talked tough at the rally, saying: "Brothers and sisters, we did not start this fight."
"Enough is enough," she shouted, starting a chant.
Lewis blamed Mayor Rahm Emanuel and administrators for the stalemate, saying it's not the teachers' fault that resources are tight and "children are not a campaign promise."
Lewis was joined onstage by representatives from other unions, including the United Auto Workers; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; and the Chicago Firefighters Union. Workers waved signs reading "Fair Contract" and "United we Bargain, Divided we Beg."
"We are going to protect, preserve and strengthen all of the gains we workers have made over the years," said William McNary, co-director of Citizen Action/Illinois, a political coalition promoting social and economic justice.
The pace of contract talks picked up over the weekend, union officials said. Contract talks are scheduled through Friday, and the union clearly hopes the added pressure of a strike threat leads to a settlement.
But the two sides remain at odds on issues including pay, a new teacher evaluation process and a recall policy for teachers who have been laid off. Union leaders said they're worried the district might try to close as many as 100 schools to save money and to consolidate resources.
"We are going to let the mayor and officials know we are serious," said supporter Josephine Hamilton Perry, who said she taught at a Chicago school for 19 years before being laid off in 2011. "They need to talk to some teachers who were laid off. A laid-off teacher will let you know that many times (termination) is because they have spoken up about the unfair labor practices."
In preparation for a possible strike, the district has said that it will open 145 schools for a half-day of noninstructional activities, enlisting help from other city agencies and providing students with breakfast and lunch. Charter schools employ teachers who are not CTU members and will stay open if there is a strike.
A list of programs, sites and how to sign up students will be released this week, the district said. Parents will enroll children by phone or online. The district also said it was organizing a telephone town hall meeting for parents to pass along information on strike contingency plans.
CPS also is asking the state's governing body for high school athletics for permission to hold practices and sporting events even if teachers walk out. The Illinois High School Association board of directors will consider the request at a hearing Monday.
"I've got a daughter starting in CPS tomorrow," said Steve Jones, a graduate student attending the rally. His daughter will begin a pre-kindergarten program in Hyde Park, he said. "She deserves the best education she can get."
Lewis has used harsh language to describe Emanuel, once again Monday calling the mayor a "bully" and a "liar."
Asked later if the conflict had become personal, Lewis responded: "You don't get a 98 percent vote if it's a personal problem," she said, referring to the percentage of teachers union voters who approved the strike.
Schools chief Jean-Claude Brizard issued a statement in response to the rally.
"We honor the working men and women of our district not just today, but every day for the great work they do on behalf of our students," the statement read. "We hope to soon reach a fair agreement that recognizes them for their hard work and allows us to avoid any disruptions to our kids' school year just as they and their teachers are benefiting from the new full school day."
Tribune reporter Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah contributed.