More than 1,000 school employees in west suburban Cicero have been told to go back to their classrooms later this month even though the town’s COVID-19 test positivity rate ranks among the highest in the state.
Cicero Public School District 99, the third-largest elementary system in Illinois, serves more than 11,270 students who have been learning remotely — and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future — since the district’s 16 schools started classes August 31.
Teachers object to the Oct. 19 return date mandated by the district and want to continue teaching from home. Rachel Esposito, president of the Cicero Council of the West Suburban Teachers Union, said the union’s stance is in-person teaching and learning shouldn’t resume until at least January due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“The infection rate is way too high to start bringing people into the buildings,” said Esposito, who teaches English language arts at Unity Junior High School.
“We feel it’s unsafe not only for staff members but for students as well. And we feel that the positivity rate has to drop several percentage points and stay there at least for seven days before we start talking about bringing people back into the buildings. We think it’s irresponsible to do that at this time.”
Cicero’s seven-day test positivity rate stood above 13% Friday and hasn’t dipped below 9% over the past two months, according to a Northwestern Medicine database.
Since the start of the pandemic, Cicero has had 5,835 coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents, the highest rate of any Cook County suburb, and 4,922 total cases, the third most of any zip code in the state, Illinois Department of Public Health data shows. Latino and Black working-class communities have been especially hard-hit by the virus; Cicero is 89% Latino.
District Supt. Rudy Hernandez said bringing staff back is meant to give educators more access to teaching resources than they have at home. Big projector screens where teachers can see their students all at once, for example, will help improve the remote learning experience, he said.
“Am I concerned about the rate? Absolutely,” Hernandez said. “Do I see that being a determining factor to have our teachers here? Quite honestly, as long as they’re driving here, they come into our parking lot, they come into our school, it’s probably safer than other places they might be going to right now.”
Hernandez said he’s balancing competing priorities after a survey showed 58% of families wanted their children at home but almost half — the other 42% — wanted them back at school because of problems with remote learning. For now, Hernandez doesn’t expect to bring students back to school in November as the district had hoped.
The district has sanitized every building and has strict mask and social distancing protocols in place, he said. There have been no problems as some employees, including clerks and secretaries, have been working in the schools for the past two months to complete tasks that can be done only in person, Hernandez said.
“There’s no reason why the teachers should feel unsafe in the school building,” the superintendent said. “We’ve taken every precaution to make sure that our schools are safe, and teaching from an empty classroom, I don’t really see any issues.
“The benefits, again, of instruction that could be delivered from a classroom versus being at home, that’s what I’m basing it on.”
But Esposito said that among the roughly 200 staffers who have worked in schools since July and August, about 15% have had to quarantine at some point because of close contact to a confirmed case at their school.
“Overwhelmingly I have heard from our staff that they are scared or nervous because of their personal health or the health of someone in their home,” Esposito said. “People are just really scared, they’re angry, they’re upset, they’re anxious.”
Hernandez disputed the data cited by Esposito but would not say how many workers have tested positive for COVID-19 or how many have had to quarantine.
The superintendent said he didn’t bring staff back in August because of union objections, but concerns have since been addressed and he believe there’s nothing left to negotiate.
Work-from-home exceptions could be made for those with vulnerabilities because of age or health, Hernandez added.
But Esposito said neither she nor her colleagues felt comfortable with the assurances.
“I don’t think anybody is happy about teaching remotely or working remotely or learning remotely,” she said. “We know that there’s nothing to replace in-person learning. But when it comes to safety, we have to keep that in mind.”