Three out of four teachers in the Oswego Education Association (OEA), the Oswego School District 308's teachers union, favor a fully remote start to the school year, according to teacher surveys and letters obtained by the Ledger.
The OEA conducted separate surveys before the Board of Education's July 13 and July 21 meetings which asked its members to identify their concerns over the reopening of schools for the 2020-2021 school year amid the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.
Results of the surveys were shared privately with the Board of Education, but were not addressed during the public portions of the Board's July 13 and July 21 meetings.
According to a letter sent to the Board of Education prior to its July 21 meeting, more than three out of four teachers surveyed wanted the OEA to "recommend to the Board of Education that the 2020-2021 school year begin with remote learning that includes a transition plan to in-person learning when health conditions allow."
The survey asked members, "Should the OEA recommend to the Board of Education that the 2020-2021 school year begin with remote learning that includes a transition plan to in-person learning when health conditions allow?"
Out of a total 1,071 responses, 831 members said yes, while 240 said no. Currently, the union has about 1,375 members.
"No one wants to be back in the classroom more than teachers, and returning is the ultimate goal, but we must do so when we can protect the basic human need of safety for our students, staff and community," the letter continued.
A July 22 email to OEA members again addressed concerns that teachers have over returning to school in person. The union, the email confirmed, will continue to communicate with the district and Board of Education that the start of the 2020-2021 school year must comply with applicable health and safety requirements from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, that "each employer shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees," and the portion of the OEA contract requiring the district "provide a safe working environment."
The email continued: "When the District plan does not call for at least 6 feet of social distancing in all classrooms, the availability of common and appropriate cleaning supplies and PPE is in question, and other necessary protocols to protect students and staff are unknown, the Union believes the criteria for a safe opening have not been met."
A survey of teachers conducted prior to the July 13 meeting of the board, showed that the greatest concerns for teachers included: a thorough and daily cleaning of school buildings and classrooms, the presence of handwashing and sanitization stations throughout buildings and in classrooms, and that the district support teachers' enforcement of PPE policies including handwashing, face masks and social distancing.
A letter sent to OEA members July 13 following that night's meeting of the Board of Education where the in-person and remote learning plans were first presented, confirmed that the union "has clearly and repeatedly expressed concerns with the elementary plan, in addition to elements of the junior high and high school plans," based on data and comments from teacher surveys, and recommendations from groups including the CDC, Illinois Department of Public Health and the Illinois State Board of Education to advocate for a safer reopening plan.
Two days after the July 13 meeting, several areas of the plans for students at each grade level were adjusted.
"While recognizing the importance of in person instruction for our youngest students, there is extreme concern from teachers regarding the ability of these students to correctly and consistently wear a face mask from the time the bus picks them up, throughout the school day, and until the bus returns them home," the July 13 letter reads.
Other concerns expressed by teachers included the availability of technology, having enough planning time for their lessons, sick days, how special classes like social work and gifted education courses would be provided to students, large gatherings in hallways or in assemblies, and learning management systems like Google Classroom.
"Nearly full class sizes without the ability to safely/consistently social distance, lunch on campus, the need for classroom alterations (windows/ventilation/HEPA filters), protocols for staff and students exhibiting positive symptoms or testing positive, and the need for additional custodial/maintenance staff are just some of the highest concerns that impede a confident and safe reopening of schools," the OEA letter continued. "These concerns need to be addressed prior to returning to in-person learning, and may include a full hybrid of in-person and remote learning."
The survey issued to OEA members also gave them the ability to provide commentary, summarized and anonymous, including suggestions on what a school day format could look like. Comments included a half-day schedule, having groups of students attend on Mondays/Fridays and Tuesdays/Thursdays with a deep clean of buildings on Wednesdays and engaging in remote learning for the first semester of the school year.
Teachers also expressed concerns in their comments that parents will drive the decision for the school year, instead of what is best for the safety of schools. Respondents also questioned the metrics that would be used to determine the closure of schools and switch to remote learning, as well as whether or not classrooms would be at full capacity.
"It is important that all our students get the best education possible, even during these trying times," the OEA letter continued. "Even as our communities continue to face a changing reality, the teachers will still provide students the guidance they need, encourage our children to believe in themselves, engage in social and emotional learning and development, teach the skills and content, and provide each student the community support and stability they require."
Oswego School District 308 did not return calls for comment.