'Unanswered Questions' Linger For Teachers As School Reopening Plans Emerge | WGLT

'Unanswered Questions' Linger For Teachers As School Reopening Plans Emerge

Jul 22, 2020

The union that represents Unit 5 teachers is calling on the district to revise its just-released pandemic reopening plan to address "hundreds of unanswered questions" and then "move forward in a way that reduces risk and keeps students and staff safe."

Unit 5’s plan, like others in central Illinois, gives parents a choice whether to send their children back to school in-person or learn remotely this fall. Unit 5’s junior high and high schoolers would only be in-person two days a week, while younger students would be in school every day. Parents are weighing child care needs, work obligations, and the health of their families.

The Unit Five Education Association “did not directly participate in the development of the plan,” UFEA President Lindsey Dickinson said. UFEA was “invited to participate in the district’s Pandemic Advisory Council to provide input along with other stakeholders, and district administrators did seek our input to clarify and verify issues that were potential contract violations,” she said.

“We would have preferred to work collaboratively with the district on the development of the plan. Instead, we learned the details of the plan at the same time it was released to parents and the public. As a result, we have hundreds of unanswered questions,” Dickinson said.

Dickinson is expected to deliver these comments to the Unit 5 school board Wednesday night, as it meets to vote on the plan. The meeting is at 6:30 p.m. at Normal West High School.

UFEA raised concerns that Unit 5 developed the plan based on outdated feedback from families and employees. The deadline for survey feedback was July 8. Since then, McLean County has added 121 new coronavirus cases—a 40% spike in just two weeks.

“If surveyed today, UFEA member responses would be different because of what has transpired the past couple weeks,” Dickinson said.

The plan was developed with input from Unit 5’s Pandemic Advisory Committee, which new Superintendent Kristen Weikle said included administrators, teachers, staff, union representatives, and others. The district received over 6,000 responses from the family survey.

"Here in Unit 5, we've put safety protocols in place that we think not only protect our staff members but our students. Every staff member will be provided with a washable mask. We've ordered face shields. We have plexiglass set up in the office areas," Weikle said in an interview this week on WGLT's Sound Ideas. "Can that prevent anything and everything? No. But we're doing everything that we can based on recommendations from the CDC, the Illinois Department and our local health department."

Dickinson added: "UFEA believes it is important for the district to continue to collect feedback and input from all stakeholders, including our members. We believe it is important to do that now, before a decision is made, but certainly before the plan is implemented."

District 87 teachers

Teachers across central Illinois are mulling over their districts’ reopening plan, too.

In Bloomington’s District 87, students of all ages will be in school every day unless their family opts for a fully remote experience. A top concern for teachers is how much social distancing will be possible with everyday, in-person instruction at Bloomington Junior High and Bloomington High School, said Bloomington Education Association union President Joe Lewis, who teaches at BHS. Class schedules will be modified, but District 87 teachers have noticed how different that is from Unit 5’s two-days-per-week plan.

“I have gotten questions from teachers asking, ‘Why does our plan seem to have more students in the building, which makes it harder to social distance?’” Lewis said. “After they read Unit 5’s plan, they’re asking questions about why we aren’t doing something similar. And I don’t have an answer to that question.”

The answer hinges in part on a big unknown: how many families will choose the remote learning option. About one-third of District 87’s families completed a survey. Of those, 11% indicated they would participate in remote learning, and another 31% of families were unsure what they would do.

This week, the statewide Illinois Federation of Teachers union called on starting the school year with remote learning across the board, calling it the “safest and best option.”

Lewis said rising case totals in central Illinois may require more statewide guidance, like what happened in the spring when Gov. JB Pritzker closed schools.

“I remember in the spring it was a relief when the state said, ‘You know what, this is too dangerous. We need to go remote learning,’” Lewis said. “And even if it’s for the first three or four weeks of the school year, even if it’s just a delay to make sure everything in place ... if the numbers continue to rise, I hope we have that kind of guidance. Because we have so many unknowns, we may need more time.”

Olympia school district

In the more rural Olympia school district, teachers union co-presidents Stacy Goeke and Kate Berry said they were generally pleased with the reopening plan released last week.

Teachers had input through a curriculum team that formed last spring when the coronavirus arrived, they said. Goeke and Berry also met directly with the administration to discuss it.

“I really feel like the plan that’s been put together really focuses on staff safety and student safety, and really making sure our district is following the (state) guidelines,” said Goeke, a kindergarten teacher at Olympia South Elementary School in Atlanta in Logan County.

That said, there is still uncertainty. How will quarantining work if a teacher tests positive, or their own child does? Where will Olympia find enough substitute teachers to fill the gap?

Whatever happens, the key is for parents to understand that teachers are trying their best, Goeke said.

“Parent support is going to be essential for us getting through this school year, and being flexible,” added Berry, a social studies teacher at Olympia High School in Stanford.

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