A version of the message below has been sent to our community leaders. If you would like to read those messages, each of them are linked here.
Like all of you, UFEA and UFSPA leadership are observing what’s occurring in our community, and we find the trends troubling.
COVID-19 cases continue to rise, our healthcare system is seeing a surge, the stories of individuals impacted by the pandemic are heartbreaking, and the data continue to suggest community spread is substantial and increasing.
From the beginning of this pandemic, our message to the district has been simple and straightforward — we want to be involved in the decision-making process when those decisions impact our members and students, and we believe decisions need to prioritize the health and safety of students, families and staff.
Our message to our students and their families has stayed the same — we care about our students and we want to be with them, safely in-person at school, and when that is not possible we are willing to do everything we can to continue to support their growth and learning.
And we’ve communicated a consistent message to our community — educating the students of our community is our job, but doing it during a pandemic is a community effort and we can’t do it without you.
Being a decision-maker right now is a difficult task. The district’s leadership is in a tough position as they navigate how to provide the best possible learning environment considering all of the factors in front of them. Those decisions are made even more difficult due to a lack of timely, consistent data from the McLean County Health Department and harder still recognizing that regardless of the decision some of those impacted by the decision — students, families, staff and the community — will be unhappy.
Despite the difficulty, the district needs to make a decision. They should make that decision sooner rather than later, they should be transparent in their decision-making, and they should communicate clearly and often throughout the process.
At this point, the only decision that prioritizes the health and safety of staff and students is to return to Remote Learning until we’ve collectively taken the steps necessary to control community spread and create an environment where returning to school in-person is safe for those of us who work there and the students we care about who learn there.
We Know …
Community spread is substantial.
The contract tracing data Unit 5 is using seems to indicate the protocols, precautions and procedures in place in our schools are limiting the spread within our schools. Yet, despite everything the district has been doing and the fact that exposure and infection seem to be limited within the school setting, community spread continues to rise.
The number of staff and students required to quarantine is growing. There are significant staffing issues — unfilled jobs and insufficient substitutes. And we know there would be even more staffing issues if we didn’t have current staff pulling double duty and covering classes for each other.
The workload on staff is increasing and the burnout is real. Across the state, IEA members are expressing similar concerns.
We Don’t Know…
An accurate and complete picture of current COVID numbers.
Demand for testing has increased, and many are waiting longer for results. Further, it’s our understanding the McLean County Health Department does not have the capacity to provide timely, current data to the district.
The district must rely on data from the Illinois Department of Public Health, which usually runs a week behind. Generally, IDPH data is received by the district each Friday around noon — and that data is from the prior week meaning it’s 5-10 days old.
What will happen in the coming weeks.
Despite recent recommendations from IDPH to work from home when possible, participate only in essential activities, and limit travel and gatherings, it’s hard to know what decisions individuals and families will make during Thanksgiving or winter break, and what impact those decisions will have on our schools and the community.
The right answer.
Perhaps the most difficult part of the pandemic is that it’s hard to know the right answer. There are benefits and risks regardless of what decision is made. And our membership, much like the community at large, has held a variety of very strong and mixed opinions regarding remote, hybrid and in-person learning. UFEA and UFSPA leadership have attempted to reflect those varied interests and perspectives as effectively as possible, amplifying the voices of members when speaking with the district and trying to represent the collective interests of more than 1,300 members while considering there are indeed more than 1,300 individual interests. It has not always been an easy task. And, it likely will not be easy until we have more certainty — a consistent and coherent national testing and tracing strategy, trustworthy therapeutics and/or a reliable, readily available vaccine.
The district should be open and transparent with their decision-making. They should communicate clearly and often with staff, students, families and the community. They should continue to rely on the best information available to them, and they should prioritize the health and safety of staff and students.
The McLean County Board should immediately take whatever steps are necessary to provide the McLean County Health Department with the resources they need to monitor COVID-19 in the community and provide timely, relevant data to decision-makers like Unit 5.
Community leaders should come together to provide common guidance and clear expectations for the community.
As much as possible, Unit 5 should be working with other local school districts — especially District 87 — to coordinate plans and communication.
Staff, students and families should follow the guidance of community leaders and the recommendations of the IDPH, especially in the coming weeks. The only way our schools can remain open safely and consistently for in-person learning is if community spread is reduced and remains at a safe level. We need everyone in the community to wash their hands, watch their distance, wear their masks, stay home whenever they can (and especially if they aren’t feeling well) and get tested if they have symptoms or have reason for concern. Everyone needs to limit travel and gatherings.
This requires a community effort. Educating the students of our community is our job, but doing it during a pandemic is a community effort and we can’t do it without you.
In the meantime, Unit 5 needs to make a decision. While we are waiting for data, we can all see the trends. And those trends should concern us all.
We all want to be in our schools with our students, safely. Hybrid and remote learning are not ideal. But, we must prioritize the health and safety of staff and students. A return to Remote Learning is necessary until we’ve collectively taken the steps necessary to control community spread and create an environment where returning to school in-person is safe for those of us who work there and the students we care about who learn there.