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Illinois teachers union urges state to close schools, set metrics as COVID-19 cases spike

A Chicago Teachers Union worker affixes a “Stay Remote Save Lives” sign on a car
In August, teachers in Chicago protested reopening school buildings amidst a coronavirus pandemic. With cases currently surging throughout Illinois, the Illinois Federation of Teachers is urging Gov. J.B. Pritzker to close schools and set metrics.
Photo by Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP via Getty Images

The Illinois Federation of Teachers wants Gov. J.B. Pritzker to close school statewide and set thresholds to help school districts decide whether to open school buildings or not as COVID cases surge.

On Tuesday, state public health officials reported over 12,000 new cases and 97 deaths. The percentage of coronavirus cases as a share of total tests hit a seven-day rolling average of 12.5% statewide, and Nov. 13 had the highest number of reported cases with more than 15,000 confirmed.

To help stop the spread, the governor announced new restrictions on businesses throughout the state during a press conference Tuesday but did not mention any restrictions for schools. He maintains that it’s up to local school district leaders to decide whether or not schools go remote.

In Chicago, where schools have been closed since March, the public school district is set to reopen its school buildings for pre-kindergarteners and students with special needs on Jan.11. The district plans to open buildings to K-8 students on Feb. 1.

IFT President Dan Montgomery sees the current spike in cases as a strong argument to close school buildings statewide. He said that when Pritzker closed school buildings in March, some parts of the state had small numbers of coronavirus cases or none at all. Now, every county in the state has a significant number of cases. The union also wants Pritzker and the department of public health to establish clear COVID metrics for schools.

“School superintendents and school boards are saying ‘Give us help’ because — in some cases — they may have parent groups who are angry and upset and it’s hard for them when they say they are going remote, but the neighboring district is staying open,” said Montgomery.

“Without clear metrics from the state that say, ‘You should go remote when the positive positivity level is X,’ you know, then [school leaders] really do have these arguments with some members of the public saying ‘Hey, we should still be in person.’

The state of New York recommends that school buildings close if there is a positivity rate of 9% over a seven-day rolling average. New York City currently has a 3% positivity rate and New York City public schools are open but could be shut down soon.

States such as Colorado, Indiana, New Jersey, and Michigan have taken a similar approach as Illinois and are leaving the decision to close school buildings up to the local school districts. New Jersey and Colorado recommend that schools go remote if the positivity rate is about 10%.

Without a clear metric, Montgomery fears that there will not be any enforcement for local school districts to close buildings even if their school’s community is suffering from a large number of coronavirus cases.

Christina Veiga, Patrick Wall, Dylan Peers McCoy, Koby Levin, Erica Meltzer contributed reporting.

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