USA

New Trier High alumni ask school to move to remote learning, say in-person classes are ‘too great a gamble’ given COVID-19 risk

With just weeks before the first day of classes at New Trier High School, a group of alumni say teachers’ COVID-19 safety concerns demand that the school board “immediately reverse course” from plans to start the new school year with in-person instruction.

In a letter addressed to New Trier High School Superintendent Paul Sally and the school board, members of a grassroots organization Trevs for Teachers said they stand in “solidarity” with the high school’s teachers union “and in total opposition to the administration’s suggested hybrid opening format for the 2020-2021 school year.”

The school board is expected to report on the fall reopening plans at a special meeting at 5 p.m. Wednesday.

School officials have said their campuses in Winnetka and Northfield will have a “smart start” that combines in-person and remote learning, a gradual approach so students and staff can become accustomed to the various safety protocols that will be in place.

Yet the group of New Trier graduates, in a Monday letter to school officials, wrote: “As alumni, we attribute the foundation of our intellect, our service, and our integrity as American citizens to the lessons these educators instilled in us as youth. While we agree that in-person instruction should be the eventual goal for the township, demanding our teachers put themselves, their families, and their own communities at risk cries out as an injustice that flies in the face of New Trier’s own motto. To do so is entirely beneath the stature and dignity of our storied alma mater.”

Officials at the high school did not immediately return a request for comment on Tuesday.

But in a letter to the community written by two New Trier teachers, despite the high school’s tradition of offering a supportive and respectful workplace, mounting concerns about returning to in-person learning this fall — including the impact on teachers with children — have allegedly been discounted.

“In mid-July, we watched with mounting anxiety as public high schools around the state dominoed, each making successive headlines by scrapping in-person instructional models and committing to remote instruction for at least the first quarter of the year,” the teachers wrote. “Panic struck when the elementary schools our children respectively attended followed suit, while New Trier stood resolute in its plan to offer in-person instruction.”

After the high school’s human resources department allegedly asked faculty members to complete an application explaining why they were reluctant to teach in person, the teachers said they “dutifully filled out the forms and encouraged staff to answer questions that revealed information about personal health, marital status, children’s learning disabilities, and family finances. Although this did not feel good and implicitly forced us to compete in the ‘Tragedy Olympics’ with our colleagues — whose home life is the hardest? — we trusted our institution.”

The teachers said they were hopeful New Trier officials would see the value in granting their request to teach remotely, “while also allowing us to supervise our children, none of whom are legally allowed to be left home alone.”

“You can imagine our disappointment when, one by one, we received calls with a dismal outlook: no teacher would receive full remote accommodations for childcare or the health and well-being of a dependent,” the teachers wrote. “At best, we would be given some days to work remotely, and we’d be expected to ‘make it work’ for the remaining days. ... Who will take care of the almost 200 children of faculty and staff members, each of whom was similarly denied a childcare accommodation?”

Last month, officials with the high school’s teachers union said in a statement that a recent poll of its staff found “an overwhelming majority of New Trier faculty voiced opposition to a hybrid re-opening of the 2020-2021 school year.”

“Due to significant concerns over the continued growth of COVID-19 infections locally and around the country, the NTHSEA believes that the use of the planned hybrid format poses a significant risk to student, staff and faculty health and safety,” union officials said in a July 24 statement.

“No matter how many precautions are taken, in-person learning at this time will inevitably lead to the spread of avoidable illness and, potentially, death among our students, staff and community,” union officials said, calling for remote learning to begin the new school year.

Members of the group supporting the union’s opposition to reopening the high school’s two campuses in the fall said they “reject the notion that remote learning will be a greater detriment to students than the stress and hazards posed by returning to campus.”

“We call upon the Board of Education to immediately reverse course, in the interest of saving lives, and suspend in-person instruction for the beginning of this school year,” the group said in their Monday statement. “There is no just cause to place any member of the New Trier family at undue risk. The threat of even one person’s death, be it faculty, staff, student, or neighbor is too great a gamble.”

New Trier is among a small group of North Shore school districts, including those in Winnetka, Wilmette and Lake Forest, where officials are still considering preliminary plans to welcome students back into classrooms later this month.

Citing safety concerns, teachers with Riverside Brookfield Township District 208 are expected to gather at a rally before the school board’s Tuesday night school board meeting, asking officials to start the school year with full remote learning, rather than a hybrid plan under consideration.

Despite surveys showing a majority of parents in many suburban districts favor re-opening schools, officials in Arlington Heights, Barrington and Evanston recently abandoned earlier plans to re-open schools, and announced they will begin the school year with remote instruction.

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