By Maria Maxham
Despite the River Forest Education Association (RFEA) speaking out against the in-person plan for reopening schools in the fall, the District 90 River Forest public elementary school board voted four to three to stick with the plan presented during the July 20 board meeting, a plan that provides full in-person education for elementary school students and a hybrid approach for the middle school.
The vote occurred during a July 27 special board meeting that lasted over five hours and included commentary from over 60 teachers and parents.
Board members Nicole Thompson and Cal Davis and board president Rich Moore voted against an in-person return to school. Board members Katie Avalos, Judy Deogracias, Barb Hickey and Stacey Williams voted in favor of it, solidifying the recommendations presented at the July 20 meeting.
Immediately prior to that vote, Thompson made a motion and called for a vote for a fully remote beginning to the upcoming school year. It was defeated four to three.
Thompson, a medical doctor, spoke about the fact that there are still many unknowns related to COVID-19.
"We are literally learning new things on a daily basis," Thompson said. She said that as the outbreak has progressed, a larger number of children have been infected. But children, she said, haven't been widely tested, and their infection patterns are unknown since social distancing has been in place. Additionally, medical professionals have reported less consistency in test results among children, who sometimes test negative a few times before a positive test comes back.
Moore, too, pushed for remote-learning over in-person learning for kids. The original plan presented on July 20, he said, was put together before the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) released updated guidance on reopening, guidance which made it clear schools needed to have in place plans to quickly pivot if infections occurred among students or teachers.
"The expectation in the ISBE language is that we're going to move back … to remote learning," Moore said during the meeting. He added: "We're predicting and expecting that our kids are going to get sick."
Moore said some of the comments from parents and those supporting in-person learning used the phrase "the benefits outweigh the risk."
"That's not what schools do," said Moore. "When there is a risk of harm, we protect and defer to safety first."
Louisa Starr and Shana Joyce submitted a letter on behalf of the RFEA, the union representing D90 teachers, which was read during the meeting.
"We join teachers across the state to advocate for an initial return to school with remote instruction," read the letter.
Starr and Joyce said, in the letter, that the stance represents "the concerns of a majority of our teacher members." They added that over the preceding weekend they'd conducted a new survey within the RFEA. Eight percent of the teachers supported the original in-person return to school plan as-is; 34 percent supported the plan only if union concerns were met; 57 percent didn't support the plan at all.
The RFEA's concerns focused on poor air quality and air filtering options in the schools; a lack of data and specific guidelines on when schools would close during a COVID-19 resurgence; a need for district policy addressing the increasing vulnerability of Black, Latinx and senior teachers to COVID-19; and the large number of students middle school and special teachers would be in contact with on a regular basis.
"The RFEA favors initially returning under a revamped, more robust plan for remote instruction. No matter what the school year brings, the staff in District 90 will work as hard as it's ever worked, if not harder, to do what is best for students," said the RFEA statement.
The board members who voted for an in-person return to school acknowledged that it was not an easy decision to make.
Board vice prescient Barb Hickey said, "Everyone is right. All of the concerns are very legitimate concerns. There are no easy decisions to make here."
But Hickey said she has "great confidence in the process" and that all the important voices had been heard and considered in the formulation of the plan.
Hickey's greatest concern is in educating the lower grades, where, she said, social and emotional skills are developed and are an essential part of education.
"I worry particularly about our youngest learners," said Hickey, "and I feel it is our obligation to at least return them to the classroom, because in the absence of the classroom I'm not sure how they can learn any of the things it is important for them to know."
Hickey acknowledged that returning to school in person "represents something of a risk for our teachers, but our building team has gone through great lengths to evaluate what the guidelines are and what we can do to make our school buildings as safe as we possibly can."
Katie Avalos, who also voted in favor of in-person learning, said she felt confident that the return-to-school plan followed ISBE's guidance to open schools if possible. She urged the administration, however, to be responsive to teachers' concerns.
Board member Judy Deogracias, another supporter of in-person learning, said, "I want to make something very clear. This decision is not a referendum; it is governance." All board members, she said, reviewed district provided documents and did their own due diligence.
"Aside from [board member] Dr. Thompson, we may not be scientists or medical professionals, but we can read, ask questions, clarify points, and most importantly listen," Deogracias said.
Deogracias said, "Let's give some grace to the teachers," who worked hard to institute distance learning, something that "was essentially dumped in our collective laps this spring."
But she also criticized teachers who voiced their concerns during the July 20 and 27 meetings for not also talking about their distance learning plans.
"I was disappointed that they did not discuss what actions they have personally taken to improve and further develop their remote learning and delivery skills," said Deogracias. She added: "I can say with confidence that at some point we all know that we will back to 100 percent remote learning. Remote learning will remain at the forefront of a priority for this district."
D90 has a Safety and Operations Action Team, which has put together a set of detailed recommendations for school operations, including PPE for staff and students, distancing requirements, and other COVID-related risk mitigations.
A full remote learning option will be provided to all families in the district as an option. More information will be released by the district soon.
Details of the back-to-school plan and links to a recording of the meeting can be found on the D90 website at www.district90.org/.
This article was edited to add more board member comments about the reopening plan.
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