Some Illinois school districts are pressing ahead with reopening despite slow vaccine rollout

Some Illinois school district move forward with reopening school buildings for students despite the state’s slow vaccine rollout. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Algonquin School District 300 reopened school buildings for all students on Jan. 11. With so many questions and unknowns around the COVID-19 vaccine then, the union decided not to make it a sticking point in its talks with the school district. 

“It’s the managerial right among administration to say, ‘This is how we’re going to do the opening.’ They told us they were reopening on the 11th. We tried to figure out how to make it as safe as possible,” said Mark Williamson, president of the Local Education Association District 300. 

Williamson said the union did suggest waiting to reopen schools until the vaccine was available but there were too many questions regarding the rollout. Chief among them: how long it would take for teachers to be fully vaccinated, given the current three- to four-week waiting period before the second dose is administered.  Also, the district had experimented with reopening schools safely in September and both sides felt that doing so on a larger scale was possible given that the region has not had a lot of COVID-19 cases. 

Vaccination of Algonquin’s teachers is underway. The state cleared teachers and other essential workers to receive doses on Jan. 25. Williamson said teachers received their first shots earlier than expected because there were leftovers from the first phase of vaccinations, which included frontline workers and those in long-term care facilities. The local public health department plans to roll out more doses for district teachers on Feb. 8. 

In Chicago, where a reopening debate has captured national interest, the union has argued that schools shouldn’t reopen until vaccinations are widespread. But vaccinations haven’t appeared to be a wedge issue in other Illinois districts trying to reopen schools. Some are too worried about the slow rollout or supply issues complicating their timeline. Others have been small enough to direct excess supply to teachers already or develop strong communication plans. What’s more, unlike in Chicago, teachers unions haven’t overwhelmingly pushed the issue either.

Steve Grossman, president of North Suburban Teachers Union, said the union was not able to get agreements that it wanted for all the school districts in which it represents teachers. The union represents 2,000 educators across the northern suburbs of Chicago with 16 councils to represent those schools. Some school districts have been open since August. 

“We put a big emphasis on making sure that teachers were at the table with the school district to negotiate the terms of reopening. It was very mixed in terms of which councils had leverage to get better deals and which school districts were more open minded about safe openings,” said Grossman.

In Niles Township High School District 2019, a robust communication campaign helped ease teachers’ concerns, Grossman said. The district, which is located in Skokie and serves over 4,500 students between two high schools, has been remote the entire year with plans to reopen with a hybrid learning model on March 1. 

Pankaj Sharma, a social science teacher at Niles North High School and vice president of the union, has said that Skokie’s public health department has worked closely with the district to vaccinate teachers and support staff for the last few weeks. 

“The public health department notified Skokie schools, the schools then sent emails to their teachers, once someone saw that email they started texting all of their friends. You know, you’d send a text to all your colleagues like, ‘Hey it’s live. Sign up now if you can,’” Sharma said. 

As a teacher who will be heading back into the classroom, Sharma said he and his colleagues are excited to get back into a classroom, even though it will be a challenge to teach students in person and those who chose to stay remote.

In addition to the challenges of remote learning, Sharma wants to ensure that the district and teachers are able to make families feel comfortable with their decision to come back to classrooms or stay home. 

“Some of my students are very excited and looking forward to coming back and some aren’t. They are nervous and not feeling comfortable and have chosen not to come back yet,” he said. “ I think it’s really important that we all respect where our students and their families are.” 

While school districts and unions are concerned about receiving vaccines, there has yet to be word of when families can expect students to get vaccinated. 

The state is currently reporting that over a million of Illinois students are participating in remote learning, while 725,000 students are doing hybrid learning and fewer than 200,000 are in person. 

Other states throughout the country also are including vaccination in their school reopening plans. Colorado’s governor moved up the date for teachers to receive vaccines to Feb. 8. Tennessee expects to vaccinate teachers sometime this month or in March and they plan to recruit school nurses to administer the vaccine to teachers and staff at schools. In New Jersey, the Newark school district plans to vaccinate teachers this month and expects that all teachers will be vaccinated by April when schools are slated to open. 

On Wednesday, the educator advocacy group Educators for Excellence released a survey that showed only a slight majority of all teachers (56%) rated the vaccine as “critically important” to feel comfortable in a safe return to classrooms. They were more concerned with sanitized schools, personal protective equipment, and consistent plans for testing, contact tracing, quarantining.

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