Parents, teachers and a representative of the Forest Park Teachers Union addressed the District 91 school board members at their meeting, Jan. 9, about keeping school open during sub-zero temperatures, Jan. 6-7. Superintendent Louis Cavallo defended his decision to be the lone district in the region open on the dangerously cold day.
It was the first time staff and teachers addressed the superintendent and board publicly since the decision to keep schools open was made.
Teachers expressed their disappointment at being put in a dangerous situation to come in to work.
“There’s a hurt issue right now and it’s out of hand,” said Middle School Special Education teacher Della Hosty. “I’m afraid you’re going to lose good teachers over this,” she said.
“We appreciate everything you do for us,” Hosty told the board. “It really hurt us teachers because we weren’t heard.”
Forest Park Teachers Association President Katherine Valleau read a statement saying the union had “respectfully contacted” Cavallo the Sunday before the deep freeze to ask him to consider closing school for the safety of the staff.
“The FPTA has a duty to speak for and protect its members’ rights and working conditions,” said Valleau, noting union members were “extremely grateful” that board members had responded to emails from teachers. “We get it and understand. We want to move forward,” she said. “We want to heal.”
Parent Teri Blain suggested the district should revisit their policy and perhaps offer an optional warming center service at one of the schools on extremely cold days.
Parent Rebecca Vnuk thanked the district and school board for opening schools.
“My children went to school both days, and I was glad the school was open. I sympathize with the people who had to come in a long way,” she said. “But I’m very happy that school was open and I appreciated it very much.”
Cavallo defends his decision
Cavallo said he was grateful to hear feedback, pro and con, about his decision. “Some of the comments were unpleasant,” he said, quickly adding that some were supportive.
“Sometimes my decisions are not popular. Sometimes they’re not right, but sometimes they are,” he said.
Cavallo said he has promised parents in the past that “if it’s possible to open our doors, we will. Forty-three percent of our families are low-income [and] 2-3 percent of our students at any given time are homeless. Our families depend on schools as a safe place for their children to be when they go to work.”
“My logic, flawed as it may have been, was that lots of employees had to go to work. And our employees work indoors,” he said.
“The biggest regret I have is that teachers felt I did not value them,” he added.
The majority of teachers at Forest Park schools live out of the district. Cavallo said he did not know how many children were in school on Monday, but multiple sources confirmed a total of 73 students attended in all five schools. The numbers rose on Tuesday. The district has a total enrollment of 811 students in grades K-8 and around 150 employees.
“We are not daycare centers,” Cavallo said. “I don’t want any teachers to think I view them as daycare providers.” The district posted Facebook photos of students engaged in science activities during the day, such as creating a cloud and making 3-D snowflakes.
“Learning did take place,” said board member Heather Cianciolo.
Monday, the board met again to hash out a letter to the “District 91 Community.” Cianciolo and Rafael Rosa, on the board’s communications committee, said it was important that the board get a message to the teachers and community quickly because no official message was made in the days following the extremely cold weather.
Board member Sean Blaylock said the letter should reflect that the board wanted to learn from the experience and try to prepare so they can do better.
“The events had an impact on the entire community,” Blaylock said. “People had to undergo extraordinary circumstances on some extraordinary days.”