McHenry Elementary School District 15 furloughed 74 staffers – including bus drivers, cafeteria workers and a mechanic – Monday as a result of the district resetting its education plan to fully remote learning through Feb. 19 amid a nationwide surge of COVID-19 cases.
Drivers and cafeteria workers had been delivering meals to the homes of students in the district and dropping off curriculum materials. Starting in December, when the furloughs begin, families will need to pick up the food for their students at either of the district's middle schools.
The home meal deliveries "will not be feasible during potentially dangerous winter weather," Superintendent Alan Hoffman said through an assistant. "The reduction in force is due to the fact that the district is not having in-person instruction."
But Angela Bove, union president for the McHenry School Transportation Association, said there are ways for her colleagues to continue working, delivering meals during the pandemic, without risking injury on an icy sidewalk on a home delivery.
"All they would have to do is follow the lead of the districts around us and do it to where families would have to come to a bus stop," Bove said.
She worried about students whose families may not be able to easily get to a school for a meal pickup midday and contends the district could struggle to find enough drivers to fulfill routes when it does begin hybrid learning because furloughed drivers likely will look for and find other employment.
School board member Mark Jaeger made the sole vote against the reduction in force.
JoAnn Behan, a bus driver, and a handful of other employees set to be impacted attended the meeting, with Behan speaking on behalf of the group to the board. She urged it to vote against implementing the furloughs.
"It is our opinion that this proposed reduction in force will cost the district more money in the long run than it would to keep us working by means of meal, curriculum, and supply delivery during these already hard times," Behan said.
The furloughs will hit 25 cafeteria workers, one mechanic, 43 bus drivers and five bus aides, Hoffman said through an assistant. The district previously laid off or reduced from its payroll 19 playground employees early this fall, he said.
"When hybrid learning begins, employees will be brought back based on seniority," Hoffman said.
Board member Amanda Geyer pressed Hoffman on why he made the recommendation to stay in remote learning until Feb. 19 while some public school systems and private schools in the area have remained in hybrid learning models.
"If other schools are doing it, why can't we?" Geyer said.
Moving forward with hybrid learning right now, Hoffman said, would carry "legal and financial risk" because it would be against the McHenry County Department of Health's recommendation made in late October for districts to consider returning to or staying in fully remote learning programs.
"The advice we got from our attorneys is to go with the health department's recommendations," Hoffman said. "Some school districts have been able to do the hybrid model. Ordinarily, it's a much smaller school district that can space out in smaller class sizes, but we don't have that ability."