Margaret Healy’s first week back in school in her 16th year of teaching started with a panic attack.
Her Catholic school, Immaculate Conception-St. Joseph School on the Near North Side, like most others run by the Archdiocese of Chicago, was reopening full-time for in-person instruction during a pandemic.
“I woke my husband up at six in the morning and told him I thought I was having a heart attack,” she recalls.
Days later, Healy’s first week ended with a coronavirus diagnosis. She had worn a mask and a face shield each of her four days at school.
Like many teachers and some families with kids in schools run by the Archdiocese, which for months expressed confidence it could safely reopen schools, Healy’s anxiety over resuming in-person learning had been building.
‘The wrong choice’
Healy’s father, Patrick, passed away from COVID-19 in an assisted living facility in July. She said goodbye to him over a video call.
Healy, 38, had emailed Archdiocesan administrators her concerns over the summer and heard no response. She blames the Archdiocese for not giving school workers the choice to stay at home and teach remotely.
“I felt like I was put between a rock and a hard place,” Healy said. “My choice was kind of like resign or try this out. And I tried it, and this is what happened.
“I like my school. I like my families a lot. Especially in a pandemic, I don’t want to give up the things I know. I know my curriculum, I know what I’m teaching. But you’re forced with this choice, and right now it’s like, well, I feel like I made the wrong choice.”
Neither Healy nor her husband have underlying health conditions, and so far she feels relatively fine — almost two weeks after her first symptoms, she still has a sore throat and a runny nose, but no fever.
Healy, who teaches science and religion in her sixth year at ICSJ, suspects she was infected at school — she had direct contact with someone else there who tested positive for COVID-19, leading her to get tested.
Healy was at school for two orientation sessions Aug. 26 and 28, then classes started the following Monday. She taught for the next four days and felt symptoms that Thursday, Sept. 3, which turned out to be Healy’s last day in school. She tested positive and has been home since.
“I’ve been very careful in general,” Healy said. “Especially because of my dad. I don’t go to restaurants. I don’t see people.”
She worries that the longterm effects of the novel disease are unknown, and she’s frustrated there was little if any teacher input in the decision to reopen school buildings.
“My school is really trying,” Healy said, praising her principal, Katie Sullivan, for doing her best to keep the building safe and providing hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies. “But just being in an enclosed space with students for an extended amount of time [isn’t safe]. It’s not that they’re not trying. Just how this disease spreads, it’s not enough because it’s not a big enough space.”
ICSJ is operating under a block schedule in which Healy sees three classes per day for 55 minutes at a time, then another three classes the next day. The students remain in their classrooms, but as a departmentalized teacher Healy goes into multiple rooms per day.
“My largest class is 24 [students], and my smallest class is 15,” Healy said, noting there’s only enough room for kids to be spaced about three feet from each other — less than the recommended six feet. She said she suggested to the Archdiocese that smaller class sizes could help keep students and teachers safe.
“We’re in the middle of a pandemic and you’re trying to put a couple hundred people in a confined space,” Healy said. “We were all put in this position where you can see an accident is about to happen and you can’t do anything to stop it.”
A letter home to ICSJ families from Sullivan after Healy’s confirmed infection instructed all students in sixth through eighth grades to stay home until Thursday. Fourth and fifth grade students who attend school in the same building have continued in-person classes.
Schools following healthcare guidance: official
An Archdiocesan official said the back-to-school plan calls for staffers and students who have coronavirus-like symptoms to stay away from the school until they have a confirmed diagnosis, and added that the Archdiocese has followed local health guidelines in sending home classes, cohorts or entire grades of students when an infection is found.
“Following the guidance of competent healthcare authorities our plan does not call for an entire school to shut down for one positive case,” chief human resources officer Justin Lombardo said through a spokesman. “We have not seen that as guidance from any local public healthcare authorities.”
Archdiocesan officials said Wednesday that there have been 16 confirmed cases among the 45,500 Chicago-area Catholic students and staff in the past seven days. They would not say how many confirmed infections there have been since the first schools opened about a month ago.
Asked about Healy’s criticism of the Archdiocesan plan, Lombardo, who was one of the two administrators she emailed over the summer, said he does “not comment on individual personnel matters.”
“Multiple stakeholders and constituencies were consulted over several weeks as our reopening plan was developed,” he said. “Our plan continues to evolve based on our experience so far as well as input from these same constituencies and the regularly evolving guidance from public healthcare experts.”
Some parents express concern
Not all Catholic school stakeholders have felt a return to schools is unsafe. Many families, including some formerly at Chicago Public Schools, have opted for private schooling this fall because those tuition-based institutions have been more likely to offer in-person learning. There are many working-class families who struggle balancing at-home learning and a parent’s work, while others fear the mental health impact on children who haven’t socialized with friends for months.
But a mother of two students at ICJS who asked to remain anonymous said any back-to-school plan that doesn’t include regular testing is unsafe.
Jennifer Meade Magruder, whose youngest son attends a different Archdiocesan-run school, compared the district’s plan to the federal government’s response to the coronavirus: Individual schools, like states, were left to fend for themselves, resulting in a patchwork response. Meade Magruder, of Morgan Park, said school staffers are trying their hardest, and she respects their work, but she kept her son home.
“Our biggest concern about that plan was that the class sizes would not be reduced, and so we would be 22 students in a classroom not even able to be spaced out,” Meade Magruder said, adding that she felt parent input also was not thoroughly considered. “Fundamentally it boiled down to safety.”