On March 4, the Illinois Education Labor Relations Board handed down a 4-1 ruling supporting the continuation of the hybrid learning plan that began in District 209 a few weeks ago.

The hearing was held, according to the Proviso Teachers Union (PTU), because they were unable to reach an agreement with the district on several issues, including lack of vaccinations, proper ventilation which required windows being opened in cold weather,  and disagreement about what metrics should be followed when making decisions on reopening.

In January, the district announced it would be acquiring 3,000 doses of the vaccine in early February, at which time it would begin administering them to teachers and staff and then to students, if there were leftovers. That didn’t happen, however.

In a Feb. 23 email, Superintendent James Henderson said with state shortages, the district was unable to get any vaccine.

At the Feb. 27 board meeting, he announced that 900 vaccines were on the way for the district.

In the Feb. 23 email, though, he also blamed teachers and the PTU for the small number of students who had opted to return to in-person learning. Only 22 percent of students are scheduled to participate in the hybrid learning plan, he said, the rest opting to continue remotely.

Henderson said the PTU has been using scare tactics and encouraging teachers to warn kids they should wear coats to school since windows would be cracked to help ventilate the classrooms in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Henderson added that “CDC guidance notes that natural ventilation can indeed be used as a mitigation strategy,” but was clear that the heating systems in the school buildings are working adequately.

Henderson claimed that the PTU is guilty of having “strongly encouraged, and even shared with students, that they need to wear a coat in their classrooms because they would have their windows ajar.” He added, “Some parents have even contacted me to let me know that teachers told their children that if they return to school, they will get sick and die.”

These PTU actions are “egregious and shameful,” said Henderson, adding that their “tactics are not only aimed at thwarting the in-person hybrid learning plan, they demonstrate unprofessional conduct displayed by individuals who claim they have the best of our … students at heart.”

He added: “These communications stoked fear in some of our parents and impacted their decisions on whether to allow their children to return to the classroom. Our parents have every reason to be outraged with such tactics.”

 PTU leadership told the Review that they wanted to bring in an industrial hygienist, at no cost to the district, to address the issue of proper ventilation, but the district said no.

In an email, Henderson, “We have addressed more than 800 health, life, and safety issues within our school buildings. We do not believe any additional measures are necessary at this time.”

PTU president Maggie Riley sent a response to Henderson’s comments to the Review on March 6.

“It’s so disappointing that, despite our continual and ongoing efforts to work with Dr. Henderson to do what we know as professionals is in the best interests of our students and schools, he continues to respond to questions and concerns from our union and community with misplaced vitriol, erroneous or incomplete information and false accusations. He refuses to take any responsibility for the issues facing our district, students, and school staff. It is no surprise that hundreds of people have already signed on to a petition calling for his resignation,” reads the statement.

The PTU statement from Riley said that the union’s members would continue to request meetings with Henderson to discuss concerns related to keeping students and staff safe.

“We remain hopeful that he will stop the unfair attacks, work with us instead of against us, and focus instead on doing his job, just as our teachers and school staff have been doing effectively all throughout the pandemic,” reads the statement.

In the press release about the district being allowed to remain open for hybrid instruction, Henderson said, “This is great news for students who need face-to-face instruction. We have put safety above all else to ensure our scholars get the attention they need to be successful in the classroom. We will continue to work in tandem with our teachers and the Proviso Teachers Union to ensure greatness for the whole child. Our scholars deserve nothing but the BEST!”

One of the measures the district has put into place is free COVID-19 testing, available to all students and staff, at each school building on Tuesday and Thursday. Teachers are now eligible to receive a free COVID-19 vaccination; if they sign up through the district, according to the press release, they will be scheduled to receive the first treatment in the month of March.

Other safety precautions and guidelines in place within the district include mandatory mask wearing, social distancing, frequent hand-washing, increased sanitation, and well-ventilated rooms, “using an open-window, a box fan and an air cleaner with a HEPA filter,” according to the press release.