Superintendent James Henderson | File photo

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Teachers in District 209 are returning to classrooms on Oct. 19, despite the Proviso Teachers’ Union and dozens of educators in the district speaking against the decision at the Oct. 13 meeting of the Proviso Township High Schools board of education.

According to many of the teachers, a memo of understanding was presented to them by Superintendent James Henderson early in the school year allowing them to have the option of returning to their classrooms or teaching from home, since all education is still remote.

But Henderson changed his mind and issued a directive about two weeks ago, demanding that teachers teach from the school buildings, where Promethean boards and cameras have been installed in an effort to make remote teaching more effective.

It took almost 50 minutes for board member Amanda Grant to read all the letters during the meeting, letters which overwhelmingly expressed concerns about safety upon returning to the classroom when, said the teachers, at-home instruction has been working just fine.

In a letter on behalf of the teachers’ union, Maggie Riley said there has been “no communication as to why teachers need to return to the respective buildings, other than the fact that technology” has been purchased.

“So is the takeaway that the cost of technology is more important than an employee’s health?” Riley asked in her letter.

Additionally, Riley said in her letter that the union had conducted a survey, with a 90 percent response rate, asking teachers about returning to school. The survey included 250 teachers, 37 percent of whom said they have underlying health conditions which makes them uncomfortable with an in-person return to teaching. Many of them would need accommodations even without the students back in the building. She questioned whether plans for substitute teachers were in place if these teachers needed to apply for medical leave.

Many of the teachers, in their letters, pointed out that the number of cases of COVID-19 in Illinois has been rising and urged the superintendent not to force their return to a place they feel is less safe than their homes when teaching remotely has been going well.

Social studies teacher Scott Hendrickson said that if in-person learning “is so unsafe for the students, it is even more unsafe for the teachers,” who are older, with more of them being in at-risk categories. He added that many teachers have their own children at home with no options for daycare. Waiting at least until January when other schools and daycares are returning to in-person instruction would help alleviate the childcare issue for D209 teachers.

PMSA instructor Neal Rutstein said the original memo of understanding was agreed upon in large part because the rate of COVOD-19 infections in Illinois at the beginning of the school year was considered too high to risk the health and wellbeing of teachers.

“Since their original determination that it was unsafe to have the teachers at Proviso congregate in the building, the infection rate in Illinois has actually gone up as opposed to leveling off or declining,” Rutstein said. “In other words, it is even less safe now to have teachers all be in the building at the same time than it was at the beginning of the school year.”

Compounded with flu season beginning and scientists warning of a second COVID-19 wave, “we should redouble our efforts to avoid unnecessary contacts,” said Rutstein.

Despite nearly an hour of comments from teachers, however, Henderson did not waiver.

“Teachers, you will be in the classroom,” said Henderson after the public comment section of the meeting. “Let me be very clear. It’s time, ladies and gentlemen. Despite this pandemic, we will still be held accountable. This state will still hold us accountable … You are expected to be in the classrooms Oct. 19. And I look forward to that. As you know by now, I will be in your building … You can look at me directly in my face and respectfully say what you need to say.”

He added that it wasn’t really a change of heart he’d had; in fact, he said he’d wanted teachers back in the classrooms from the beginning of the year, but he was new to the district.

“I didn’t want to start off fighting with you,” Henderson said.

The meeting, as well as all past meetings, is available online at pths209.org/Page/1158.

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