On a wintry Monday morning, a few dozen teachers at Julian stood defiantly outside the school building just before entering, in order to register their disagreement with the district’s decision to start hybrid learning.
Teachers were returning to classrooms roughly a week earlier to prepare for when students start back on Feb. 1. Monday’s demonstration, participants said, was a way for them to speak out against what they said has been a hasty and poorly planned return — a perception that D97 administrators and board members have taken pains to counter.
Some teachers held signs: “Back to class is happening too fast.” In the parking lot, the windows of cars bore messages drawn in liquid chalk: “Advocating for our educators is advocating for our students.”
“We don’t have a whole lot of faith in what this looks like,” said John Colucci, a sixth-grade teacher at Julian, who is also a department chair and a building representative for the Oak Park Teachers Association.
“I think teachers want to be back in school and be with their kids, but [only] when we feel like it’s safe,” he said.
“I have a dad who is in his 80s and I can’t go see him until I get my shots and until he gets his shots,” said Valerie Brown, who also teaches sixth grade at Julian. “What happens if we lose a teacher or, God forbid, a kid? You can’t wait until all of your teachers are vaccinated? So we don’t agree with the decision and, in solidarity, we are all wearing black and will black out when Dr. Kelley speaks to us this morning.”
Clare Brooks, a sixth-grade teacher at Brooks, said the return to classrooms “doesn’t make sense” and may exacerbate challenges for students whose families opt to continue full remote learning, such as students of color and special education students.
The protest happened a week after the District 97 board voted 4-1, at a special meeting on Jan. 20 to approve a finalized Return to School Plan. The board also voted 4-1 in favor of a separate memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the OPTA ahead of the return to classrooms.
Board members Kecia Broy, Jung Kim, Gavin Kearney and Holly Spurlock voted in favor of both measures while Katherine Murray-Liebl was the only member to vote against them. Members Cheree Moore and Rob Breymaier were absent.
Murray-Liebl channeled the frustration of many teachers, parents and community members who said they were caught off-guard when the district updated the metrics and guidelines it uses to help make decisions about hybrid learning.
In the past, the district had been relying on metrics that track community spread of the virus in Oak Park and Cook County, in order to determine when students will return to classrooms. Now experts are recommending that school districts across the country prioritize their own internal data that can be collected through measures such as diagnostic surveillance testing.
Jim Hackett, D97’s safety and security manager, said on Jan. 20 that new guidance by “a multi-disciplinary group of experts” at a variety of institutions, including Harvard, Brown and Boston universities, “recommends that schools can be open even at very high levels of community spread, provided they strictly implement strategies for infection control.”
In addition, Hackett said, the new guidance “supports the use of community spread metrics as general points of information — not an automatic trigger to close or delay the opening of a school.”
The guidance marks a change since March, when Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered schools closed because of COVID-19 case rates that were based on the spread of the virus across municipalities, counties and the state.
Murray-Liebl, who was a member of the bargaining team that helped negotiate the MOU, said she had been in support of the plan to return when “we were using the metrics we’d been using for months and months.”
She said the district should be more flexible with setting the date for returning to classrooms, and the district should make COVID-19 surveillance testing mandatory, at least among students, as Oak Park and River Forest High School plans to do once it returns to class next month.
D97 Supt. Carol Kelley said she’s been sharing updates about the changing guidelines in her Weekly Wrap-Ups, which are posted to the district’s website each week. She added that she would consult the district’s legal counsel about mandating students to take the tests.
Hackett said if the D97 were to purchase Safeguard, the vendor that OPRF is using for diagnostic testing, the cost would be approximately $577,742 for the 17 weeks remaining in the school year. Instead, he recommended the district contract with Northshore Clinical Labs, which provides diagnostic COVID-19 tests at no cost to the district and with “minimal logistical impact” on staff.
Hackett and other district officials also tried to alleviate concerns among teachers and community members about the safety of the buildings once hybrid learning begins.
District officials said masks will be mandatory at all times in school buildings, with each school given a supply of washable and disposable masks. They said bathroom hygiene and social distancing will be emphasized throughout the buildings with signs and floor markings. Administrators also created public service videos featuring students in order to illustrate hygiene and distancing and mask-wearing practices. Classroom seats, they said, will be spaced 6 feet apart.
Jeane Keane, D97’s senior director of buildings and grounds, said face shields will be available on request. She added that the district modified its HVAC system in order to increase the number of air changes per hour. Experts recommend achieving 4-6 air changes per hour of clean air, she said.
“Our ventilation system is designed to have three air changes per hour of clean air and we increased this amount to five by opening HVAC dampers and allowing 100 percent outside air into the spaces, as weather allows,” Keane explained.
Hackett said the Oak Park Department of Public Health will direct contact tracing, with D97 administrators and nursing staff attending weekly meetings with local public health officials “to ensure everyone is operating with timely information.”
Hackett and a few board members also worked to counter public perception that schools are particularly susceptible to the virus.
“To date, there is no evidence to suggest that children or educational settings are the primary drivers of COVID-19 virus transmission,” Hackett said. “It’s important to note that transmission itself doesn’t mean that in-person learning has failed.
“We have to distinguish between occasional transmission and outbreak, between correctable mistakes (transmissions that can be prevented with effective control measures) and non-correctable mistakes, such as viral spread dynamics that go beyond what can be addressed in those school settings,” he said.
Board members Holly Spurlock and Jung Kim addressed public concerns among the public that schools have been sites for the virus to spread. Spurlock referenced data from the Illinois Department of Public Health, which shows three schools in the state are currently experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks.
The IDPH designates an outbreak after a local health department reports “five or more COVID-19 cases who may have a shared exposure on school grounds and are from different households.” In the last 30 days, no outbreaks have been reported in Cook County, according to the latest IDPH data.
Referencing cases within Chicago Public Schools, which some Oak Park teachers brought up during communications with the district, Kim said “almost all of those cases” relate to infections that “didn’t occur within the school” and have been traceable to “infection outside.”
During last week’s special meeting, Kelley addressed Murray-Liebl’s concerns about the seemingly abrupt change in the district’s metrics. Murray-Liebl pointed out that the district’s old guidelines, when administrators were still relying mainly on community spread metrics to determine their decisions on hybrid learning, were still on the website, which could be confusing to some people.
“I’m sure it does feel that we are changing the rule book here, because in many ways that is exactly what is happening, but we do have to for this situation we’re in, this pandemic,” Kelley said. “We have to follow the science.”
Kelley apologized to people who may have been confused by the conflicting information on the site.
“It has been the district’s practice that we don’t pull things down from the website, but there is a lot of information we provide in the Weekly Wrap-Ups,” Kelley said, adding that those are the “best source of information” for the public to learn about the district’s plans.
Administrators said families who elected to send their students back to school but may have a change of heart can contact their building principals while staff members with reservations can contact the HR department. District officials said on Jan. 20 that they are still processing paperwork for teachers who have requested to continue teaching from home, particularly due to health reasons.
“It’s taking a ton of time and it’s not an easy process,” said Gina Hermann, D97’s senior HR director.
“The health and safety of our students and staff members is definitely our top priority,” Kelley said, adding that the process of preparing for a return to classes “has not been easy for our school board volunteers, and certainly our team has been attempting to work tirelessly in, quite frankly, a no-win situation here.”
Monday’s protest underscored Kelley’s point. Despite the administration’s planning and messaging, teachers said they still feel unsafe and unheard.
“Let the record show we’re not happy about this and we don’t feel that it’s in the best interest of all of our students,” Colucci said through a black face covering with the words “Be Brave” emblazoned in yellow, just under his nose.
And then he went to work.