By PETER HANCOCK
Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD – One of the state’s largest teachers’ unions said July 20 that most schools in Illinois are not yet ready to reopen for in-person teaching in the fall and it urged schools to continue operating remotely until the safety of students, teachers and staff can be assured.
“At this point, our recommendation is schools should return to online or remote learning after the beginning of the school year,” Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, said during a video news conference. “That is the safest and best option. It's safest for the students and their families. And it's also the most practical.”
K-12 schools in Illinois, along with colleges and universities, were ordered closed for in-person classes on March 15, just days before Gov. JB Pritzker issued a statewide stay-at-home order in response to the emerging COVID-19 pandemic. They remained closed through the remainder of the school year and were allowed to reopen for summer school on only a limited basis in early June when the state entered Phase 3 of the reopening plan.
On June 23, as the state was entering Phase 4 of the reopening plan, the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Illinois State Board of Education released guidelines for the resumption of in-person classes for the upcoming 2020-2021 academic year.
“In-person instruction is strongly encouraged in Phase 4,” the guidelines state. “However, it is critical to note that this does not signify a return to pre-pandemic operations. Appropriate social distancing, face coverings, enhanced sanitation measures, and other accommodations will be necessary to ensure the safety of students, staff, and their families.”
Those guidelines require, among other things, use of appropriate personal protective equipment, or PPE, including face coverings; prohibiting more than 50 people from gathering in one space; observing social distancing as much as possible; monitoring all individuals for symptoms of COVID-19; and an increase in schoolwide cleaning and disinfection.
But IFT issued a statement Monday suggesting those guidelines do not go far enough. In addition to the measures IDPH and ISBE recommended, IFT called for districts to negotiate their reopening plans with their local teachers’ unions, allowing a blended model of in-person and online learning that would limit class sizes to no more than 15 students at a time, giving teachers authority to decide what the best model is for their students, and requiring a two-week quarantine for any student or staff member who tests positive for COVID-19.
Montgomery said there might be some schools in the state that are able to meet those standards. “But most districts right now are not able, we believe to hit the marks, the benchmarks in terms of social distancing, in terms of all the PPE and cleaning,” he said.
Beth Anderson, who teaches special education in Kankakee, said her district has developed a plan that gives parents the option of putting their children in in-person classrooms, online learning or a combination of both.
“However, we feel a great deal of unrest because we're not sure we can really implement the plan for any length of time,” she said. “This summer, we've already experienced both staff and students testing positive even with practicing all the recommended guidelines.”
IFT has more than 103,000 members who teach in public, private and charter schools, as well as 21 community colleges, nine public universities and one private university.
Its announcement Monday came nearly a week after the 135,000-member Illinois Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, issued a similar statement that called for ensuring that all schools have adequate cleaning supplies, PPE, face masks and social distancing protocols.
“No one wants to return to school more than those who have chosen education as their profession, but it is also professional educators who understand better than anyone the impact a contagious disease can have on a school population,” the statement read.
Asked about the reopening plan at an unrelated event Monday in Peoria, Pritzker said he expects every educational institution in the state to approach the task differently.
“In some cases, schools are going to choose no in-person school. In some cases, it’ll be mostly in-person school,” he said. “But what we’ve said is, make sure you’ve got at least the hybrid available. And for kids, and there are plenty of them, who are immunosuppressed, or kids who are in families where there’s somebody at home who is immunosuppressed, they may stay home. That may be what they need to do.”
(Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.)