Illinois' second-largest teachers union urges districts to begin school year remotely

As suburban school districts roll out fall reopening plans, the state's second-largest teachers union is calling for its members to start the 2020-21 school year with e-learning during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“From a safety standpoint for students and educators, schools should begin remotely,” said Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers. “We're saying, right now, this is the best option for the beginning of the school year for most every school district.”

The federation represents 103,000 teachers and paraprofessionals in prekindergarten through 12th grade at districts statewide and employees at community colleges and universities.

Its members include educators and support personnel in Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211, Northwest Suburban High School District 214, DuPage High School District 88, Grayslake District 46, Gurnee District 56, Libertyville-Vernon Hills High School District 128, Warren Township High School District 121, Woodland District 50, College of Lake County in Grayslake, Elgin Community College, and McHenry County College in Crystal Lake, among others.

School district leaders need to have these discussions with employees and community members, Montgomery said.

“It's too important not to do this collaboratively,” he said. “We are in negotiations and discussions around the state, district by district. Our standard is not a metric of health care. Ours is: Can you enforce social distancing in your buildings with students back? Will every student wear a mask?”

The Illinois Education Association — the state's largest teachers union, representing 135,000 members — has urged districts returning to in-person instruction to spell out policies regarding face coverings, social distancing and cleaning schedules and to provide adequate cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment for all employees.

Many districts are taking a hybrid approach to reopening schools. Among them are two of the suburbs' largest high school districts.

District 211 is considering three attendance scenarios that could shift throughout school year in response to changing pandemic conditions. Options include going fully remote, returning fully in person or using a hybrid scenario allowing half the students to receive instruction at home while the other half learns at school a week at a time.

Teachers union leaders, students and parents had input in District 214's draft reopening plan, which calls for in-person classes for all teenagers whose families are comfortable sending them to school five days a week. Students also could take classes remotely, and parents might get to choose which option daily.

“I don't think that the schools are ready,” Northwest Suburban Teachers Union Local 1211 President John Braglia said of in-person instruction. The local represents nearly 3,000 members mostly in districts 211 and 214 and Palatine Elementary District 15.

“We all want to get back to school,” said Braglia, who also is District 211's council president. “We don't want it to come at a price that is horrific to any one student, their families or the staff that work in these buildings.”

He said there's a growing concern among parents and school employees about whether schools “will be safe enough given the number of students.” For example, high school districts 211 and 214 have roughly 2,000 students to a building.

Union leaders are concerned whether the districts can procure enough personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies in time.

“We start school in three weeks,” Braglia said. “I think it would be in the best interest of the students, families and staff that we begin the school year on a remote scenario.”

School districts can provide some in-person instruction as long as they can manage it safely and maintain social distancing and masking protocols per state guidelines, Montgomery said, adding that districts should start by allowing the youngest children and special needs students to resume classes in person.

Students in middle and high schools should resume online learning for now as they are more at risk of spreading the disease, he said.

“We understand the remote situation is very difficult,” Montgomery said. “We need a huge uptick in child-care support for (working) parents. We need to give those parents alternatives when their kids are home remote learning.”

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