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Unit 5 Return To Classroom Anxiety-Inducing For Teachers, Union Says

Emily Bollinger
Unit 5 is set to bring grade school students who have been learning remotely back into the classroom in early February. Those who opted for all-remote learning will stay virtual.

Unit 5 elementary students are set to return to the classroom every day in under two weeks--and that’s causing anxiety for their teachers.

Lindsey Dickinson is president of the Unit Five Education Association (UFEA), the union that represents nearly 1,000 teachers in McLean County.

Dickinson said teachers’ opinions on when and how to safely return to the classroom are all over the place, but unease is widespread.

“Until we are able to play out how it’s going to work and we get some more details from the district, we’re not going to be able to settle any of our anxieties,” Dickinson said. “There’s not a lot of information about how we’re supposed to space out children or the logistics of how returning to five days a week is supposed to work yet.”

Hopefully that happens within a week or so, she said, so teachers can prepare for the early February return.

The change applies to pre-kindergarten through fifth grade students who have been learning in a hybrid format. Students who have chosen all-remote learning will stay virtual.

Dickson said access to personal protective equipment (PPE) and cleaning supplies isn’t a major concern, since school has been remote for so long and the district stockpiled supplies at the beginning of the academic year.

But she said elementary classroom sizes and the ability to enforce social distancing are big issues.

“The other huge piece is a lot of elementary students use supplies, like colored pencils and markers and things,” she said. “Now, all of those supplies cannot be shared. There are a lot of educators that are concerned about if they have supplies to deal with all of their classes, all of their students at one time.”

Dickinson said the challenges are different when it comes to middle and high school students. Bringing older students back will require figuring out how to safely transition class periods, change classrooms, and coordinate lunch hours and after school activities, she said. There’s no timeline for when that might happen.

At this point, Dickinson said, the union doesn’t have a point where teachers would be more comfortable returning to the classroom. But she said they’re not sure now is the right time.

Dickinson said that’s partially because COVID-19 vaccines aren’t required--nor are they widely available to teachers, who are eligible during the 1b vaccination phase.

“We have some distance problems," she said. "The McLean County Health Department only has vaccination clinics from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., which is our working hours. Some of our buildings, like a Hudson or a Carlock or an Evans Junior High, they’re out so far that it’s not reasonable for them to be able to get there in time during their work day.”

Dickinson said she’s hopeful the district and health department will work together to get shots to every teacher who wants one.

In the meantime, she said, Unit 5 parents can help by making sure their child has a mask that can be worn correctly—covering the nose and mouth, without slipping down—throughout the school day. She said they also should show educators a little grace.

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Dana Vollmer is a reporter with WGLT. Dana previously covered the state Capitol for NPR Illinois and Peoria for WCBU.