CHICAGO — Chicago children returned to school Wednesday, less than a day after teachers ended a seven-day strike that disrupted the daily routines of thousands of families and made the city a flashpoint in the debate over union rights and efforts to overhaul the nation's public education system.
For Erica Weiss, the resumption of classes spared her from having to take her 6-year-old daughter to work.
"I am elated. I couldn't be happier," said Weiss, who had to leave her office in the middle of the day to pick up her daughter from one of the schools that stayed open and then bring her back to her finance job downtown.
"I can't even imagine the people who could have possibly even lost their jobs over having to stay home with their kids because they have no alternate care," she added. "It just put everyone in a pickle."
Union delegates voted overwhelmingly Tuesday evening to suspend the walkout after reviewing a proposed contract settlement with the nation's third-largest school district. They said the offer wasn't perfect, but that it included enough concessions on proposed new teacher evaluations, recall rights for laid-off teachers and classroom conditions.
The contract will now be submitted to a vote by the union's full membership of more than 26,000 teachers and support staffers.
The strike stranded roughly 350,000 students and left many parents scrambling to arrange alternative care for their children even though the district kept more than 140 schools open for several hours a day for meals and activities.
Some parents expressed hope Wednesday that the tentative agreement would benefit students in a district grappling with high dropout rates and poor performance.
"They'll win from the strike," said Leslie Sabbs-Kizer, referring to her children as she walked them to a South Side elementary school.
Wilonda Cannon, a single mother raising her four children in North Lawndale, a poor West Side neighborhood beset by gang shootings, said she was relieved that her two youngest were returning to class after spending the last seven weekdays with their grandfather.
She said she hoped the agreement was the beginning of something new for Chicago's public school system, which has long struggled with high drop-out rates and low test scores. It will take months if not years before parents and teachers will see whether the changes and contract provisions pay off for students.
"I don't know all the ins and outs (of the contract negotiations) ... but it does seem as though it's a step in the right direction," Cannon said.
As the strike dragged into a second week, Mayor Rahm Emanuel sought a court order to send teachers back to the classroom, a request that was moot after schools reopened.
"This is an exciting day for the city of Chicago," Emanuel said Wednesday. "I'm excited that the kids are back doing the most important thing," learning in the classroom.
The deal offered "major gains," including a longer school day and language clarifying that principals have the right to hire the teachers they want, he said. And the three-year contract will cost taxpayers more than $30 million less than the four-year contract that expired in June.
Union leaders pointed to concessions by the city on how closely teacher evaluations will be tied to student test scores and to better opportunities for teachers to retain their jobs if schools are closed by budget cuts.
"We said that we couldn't solve all the problems of the world with one contract, and it was time to end the strike," said Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis.
With an average salary of $76,000, Chicago teachers are already among the highest-paid in the nation. The district's final proposal included an average 7 percent raise over three years, with additional raises for experience and education.
But the evaluations and job security measures stirred the most intense debate. The union said the evaluation system relied too heavily on test scores and did not take into account outside factors that affect student performance such as poverty, violence and homelessness.
The union also pushed to give laid-off teachers first dibs on open jobs anywhere in the district. The tentative settlement proposed giving laid-off teachers first shot at schools that absorbed their former students and filling half of district openings from a pool of laid-off teachers.
Susan Hickey, a school social worker, said she is eager to learn how the students she counsels fared over the summer.
"How are they? Are they OK?" she said. "I'm glad to be back for all kinds of reasons."
Associated Press Writer Jason Keyser contributed to this report.