Return to school? Suburban teachers not all sure about it, either

  • Lauren Brzezinski, a first-grade teacher at Hawthorn Elementary South in Vernon Hills, is waiting to see what the district's plan is for school this fall.

    Lauren Brzezinski, a first-grade teacher at Hawthorn Elementary South in Vernon Hills, is waiting to see what the district's plan is for school this fall. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

  • Kathi Griffin, president of the Illinois Education Association

    Kathi Griffin, president of the Illinois Education Association

  • Cathy Malone said she's not comfortable with school administrators adding the responsibility of keeping classrooms sanitized to teachers' job requirements. "If we can mitigate the risks as much as possible, I'm willing to do my part," said Malone, who teaches at Scullen Middle School in Naperville.

    Cathy Malone said she's not comfortable with school administrators adding the responsibility of keeping classrooms sanitized to teachers' job requirements. "If we can mitigate the risks as much as possible, I'm willing to do my part," said Malone, who teaches at Scullen Middle School in Naperville. Courtesy of Cathy Malone

  • Tina Pizzitola, an Elgin Area School District U-46 paraeducator, is part of an eight-member intervention team whose job is supporting students' behavioral and social-emotional needs. "I still plan on coming back as long as safety protocols are in place," she said.

    Tina Pizzitola, an Elgin Area School District U-46 paraeducator, is part of an eight-member intervention team whose job is supporting students' behavioral and social-emotional needs. "I still plan on coming back as long as safety protocols are in place," she said. Courtesy of Tina Pizzitola

  • Lauren Brzezinski, a first-grade teacher at Hawthorn Elementary South in Vernon Hills, knows a mask most likely will be a part of her daily routine. "I miss my students so much. I want to be back in the classroom," Brzezinski said.

    Lauren Brzezinski, a first-grade teacher at Hawthorn Elementary South in Vernon Hills, knows a mask most likely will be a part of her daily routine. "I miss my students so much. I want to be back in the classroom," Brzezinski said. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 7/20/2020 6:05 AM

Lauren Brzezinski has a tough decision to make in the coming days.

The 28-year-old teacher at Hawthorn Elementary South in Vernon Hills is conflicted about whether to return to her first-grade classroom to teach students face-to-face or instead continue with remote instruction, if she's offered that option.

 

She's one of thousands of teachers across the suburbs weighing their comfort level with returning to in-person instruction, evaluating how the COVID-19 pandemic may change their jobs, and figuring out ways to deal with the stress of risking their health to fulfill their calling.

"I feel very torn. I miss my students so much. I want to be back in the classroom," Brzezinski said. "I know that students' social-emotional needs right now are really high and I want them to come back to the classroom to have that socialization, to make sure they are OK. But at the same time, I worry about everybody's health. ... It's just a really hard decision."

It certainly is, and schools, parents and teachers are caught in the middle of a raging debate.

While the Trump administration says it's important for all schools to reopen in person to start the school year, many experts says science should drive the decision.

After surveying parents and employees, many suburban school districts are working on reopening plans using state guidelines that allow schools to operate next month in one of three ways -- entirely in person, fully remote or through a blended learning model. Several districts are considering a hybrid approach, offering families a choice between virtual learning and in-person instruction with limited capacity and precautions, such as increased sanitizing, mandatory face coverings and social distancing. A few are returning to fully in-person or online instruction.

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Yet, many details and logistics are still being worked out by districts and local teachers unions, and many unanswered questions remain, including whether teachers, like parents and students, will be able to opt out of in-person learning or receive hazard and sick pay if they get infected with COVID-19.

Brzezinski said social distancing might be most challenging for a group of 25 first-graders who "haven't seen their friends in months" and love giving hugs, high-fives and fist bumps.

"If we are able to set the standard and the expectation from day one and really just be consistent, I think that we could see some success," she said.

The Illinois Education Association urges school districts returning to in-person instruction to spell out their policies regarding face coverings, social distancing and cleaning schedules, as well as ensuring adequate and appropriate cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment for all employees.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"We need to make sure that when our fall semester begins that it is done safely and we are following science and data," said Kathi Griffin, president of the state's largest teachers union representing 135,000 members.

Griffin said teachers and other school employees, such as paraprofessionals, secretaries, custodians, cafeteria workers and bus drivers, must have input in school reopening plans.

"We need to go to the experts to find out what's going to work best," she said. "This is so new. ... We're building the plane while it's flying."

Not everyone believes a return to the classroom is advisable.

Rae Goodman, 37, of Northbrook, said teachers should have the option of working remotely to protect their health, just like parents are allowed to opt out of in-person instruction for their children's safety.

"To be back in the building for the sake of being back in the building, I don't think that's what people want, teachers or anybody else," Goodman said.

Goodman teaches math and science one-on-one to high school students two days a week at Fusion Academy in Lake Forest, a private middle and high school providing personalized instruction. She's unsure if the school will require teachers to be on campus this September.

Even in well-funded school districts, teachers might be asked to go beyond their regular duties to help sanitize classrooms and student materials between periods. Some teachers might not want to return to work under those conditions, Goodman said.

Cathy Malone of Plainfield said the demands on teachers already are great. She's not comfortable with school administrators adding the responsibility of keeping classrooms sanitized to their job requirement.

"I know whatever decisions are made there will be risks," said Malone, 54, a 32-year veteran who teaches sixth-grade math and social studies at Scullen Middle School in Naperville-based Indian Prairie Unit District 204. "If we can mitigate the risks as much as possible, I'm willing to do my part."

District 204's plan involves a hybrid approach with roughly half the students attending school twice weekly. The district devised the plan after surveying more than 10,000 parents and roughly 3,000 employees.

Parents can opt out of in-person learning and choose the virtual option for their children, but it's unclear if teachers have that same choice, Malone said.

"Overall, there is not going to be one correct answer for all school districts everywhere," Malone said. "I just hope that everybody recognizes that school districts and teachers are trying to make the best decisions we can for everybody involved."

Tina Pizzitola of Streamwood, an Elgin Area School District U-46 paraeducator, is part of an eight-member intervention team whose job is supporting students' behavioral and social-emotional needs. Among her responsibilities is helping maintain a clean environment for students who typically use common manipulative supplies such as play dough, fidget spinners and sensory items.

"We're probably going to have to look at a more in-depth sterilization process," Pizzitola said. "(We) have been brainstorming how to develop individualized materials for each student."

Pizzitola, 55, has a genetic heart defect and is in a high-risk category for complications from COVID-19.

"I still plan on coming back as long as safety protocols are in place," she said of U-46 moving to hybrid learning next month, the details of which will be released Monday. "We know we have to do this right because if we don't do this right, people are going to die."

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