U-46 leaders plan for return to classrooms Tuesday amid safety concerns

  • Elgin Area School District U-46 will return to in-person instruction for early grades Tuesday.

      Elgin Area School District U-46 will return to in-person instruction for early grades Tuesday. Rick West | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 1/11/2021 10:45 PM

Elgin Area School District U-46 officials Monday shared details of their plan to switch to in-person learning despite safety concerns raised by teachers.

Hybrid in-person classes begin Tuesday for prekindergarten through sixth-grade students, and next Tuesday for middle school and high school students. Families who choose to keep their students in distance learning can still do so.

 

Superintendent Tony Sanders in his weekly message to district families acknowledged students had suffered significant losses since schools switched to remote learning last March due to the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown.

U-46 hasn't returned to in-person instruction except for a few weeks in the fall second quarter for select groups of students when school districts once again were urged to switch to remote learning.

Sanders noted the district hasn't been meeting students' academic or social-emotional needs and results from recent standardized tests showed "next to no growth across all grade levels and across all student groups, student attendance and student engagement."

This created the impetus for resuming in-person instruction.

During Monday night's school board meeting, administrators spent more than an hour outlining the comprehensive cleaning protocols for schools and classrooms, health and safety measures put in place, the system for distributing masks and other personal protective equipment to employees, and procedures for vaccinating key personnel, self-certification of students and staff members and contact tracing.

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It did not allay some teachers' concerns.

Sandra Davila, a teacher and activist with Elgin in Solidarity with Black Lives Matter, said the virus disproportionately has affected families of color. She questioned the timing for resuming in-person classes amid "the highest positivity rate of the pandemic since it started back in March."

"What happens when the principal gets COVID, because that's happened in other schools that have opened?" she asked. "How guilty are staff members going to feel when they bring the virus to school when they signed up to help children not to get them sick. We can wait a bit longer now that there's a vaccine to come back school safely. We don't know still what the repercussions are. And this is just a recipe for a super-spreading event or situation in the community."

School board members said they have been inundated with emails from teachers questioning health and safety protocols. Some teachers have said they don't feel comfortable bringing forward their concerns.

Nearly 400 teachers and their supporters rallied outside the district's administrative offices ahead of the school board meeting demanding district leaders provide more answers before they and students return to the classroom.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"We are calling for our safety plan to be strengthened, specifically by creating a collaborative system to monitor compliance and enforce safety expectations," Elgin Teachers Association President Barb Bettis said. "All stakeholders need to know what protocols will be in place to make sure the safety plan is being followed."

The union represents 2,700 teachers and other certified staff members in the state's second-largest school district educating more than 37,000 students.

"We are not against in-person learning," Bettis stressed. "We have been, and remain committed to, providing a safe learning environment for all. There are more than 42,000 students, teachers and other staff members who work in our school buildings. If U-46 cannot conduct in-person learning safely, we are putting families in 11 different communities at risk."

Bettis said the administration did not collaborate with teachers as officials claimed Monday, nor have educators been trained sufficiently on safety.

"Teachers do not feel prepared to walk in the buildings," she said. "We don't believe that collaboration truly was existing. We want our students back in the classrooms when it is safe for all, and today we do not believe we are there yet."

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