Elgin, the state’s second largest school district, reopened school buildings this month to kindergarten to 12th grade students for some in-person instruction, but the teachers union has raised new safety concerns and asked for missing student data.
Elgin’s reopening, and labor clashes in other Illinois districts such as Cicero, show that even when districts reopen, they are continually confronting unprecedented questions and challenges.
Union leaders raised questions at Monday’s board meeting, saying they needed more data about who attends in-person classes, how many students are in school buildings, and the number of students switching from hybrid to remote learning.
“Without this data we cannot have honest discussions about the state of the hybrid instruction, the grade level transition committees need to see the data to understand how the hybrid system continues to operate, and to work with the district accordingly to make additional improvements, if needed,” Barb Bettis, president of the Elgin Teachers Association, said.
The district has reported that 50% of students signed up for hybrid learning, which includes some in-person instruction, while 50% of students have continued remote learning. The district brought all grades back to school campuses throughout this month — kindergarten to sixth grade returned the week of Jan. 11, middle school to 10th grade came back the week of Jan. 18, and high school juniors and seniors arrived Jan. 25.
Attendance reports from larger districts such as Chicago and New York have shown that fewer students than anticipated actually reported for in-person learning. In Chicago, only 60% of prekindergarten and special education students who said they were returning to campuses did.
Superintendent Tony Sanders described the district’s reopening as a success. He said a few classrooms have returned temporarily to remote learning because of lack of staff or quarantining from exposure to COVID-19.
“The past two weeks have gone pretty well. I can’t thank our teachers enough for their dedication to their craft and welcoming students back into their classrooms. It’s been a joy to see kids actually following our protocols, masking up, I have not seen issues with students wearing masks,” he said Monday evening.
Jose Rosa, a teacher, said the district wanted to create a hybrid system that would bring students back to school, especially Latino students, who make up a majority of the district’s student population. But he said he has not seen a lot of Latino students returning to classrooms for in-person instruction.
“Our schools are empty because the community doesn’t feel safe,” Rosa said.
He asked the board to talk to Latino parents about their concerns and to go to schools to see how many students are actually in classes.
Scott Sternal, vice president of Elgin Teachers Association, questioned the board on excused absences for teachers who have compromised immune systems or live with family members who would be the most vulnerable to COVID-19.
“We have members who were encouraged to fill out paperwork to get accommodations and those were denied. They were told to fill out (family and medical leave) paperwork, and those were denied. It seems that at every turn, when we have had the opportunity to do what is right, we have chosen to do the thing that puts more stress on our teachers,” he said.
In addition to accessing student data, Bettis asked the board to clarify for the union what’s happening with contract tracing and sick days because teachers are not sure when to call in a sick day and how quickly teachers will be notified if there is a COVID-19 case.
Olivia Howell, student advisor to the board and a 12th grader at South Elgin High School, said that she was excited to go back to school and felt safe.
“Today was the first day that I could go back to school since March. Believe it or not, I could not wait to sit at a desk again. I was a little nervous at first, but I just wanted to let people know that at South Elgin all safety protocols were followed. As a student, I felt really safe at school,” she said.