One week into a statewide mandate requiring Illinois educators to provide proof of vaccination status or a negative COVID-19 test, local educators and teachers’ union members say testing access is still a challenge.
Steps – such as pop-up clinics in DeKalb schools for the hundreds of staff who haven’t yet produced vaccination or test documentation – and plans for the unveiling of state-provided SHIELD PCR testing in school buildings are in the works, however, officials said Friday.
Mary Lynn Buckner and Shawn LaPlante, co-presidents of the DeKalb Classroom Teachers’ Association, said that they are looking forward to having on-site testing in school buildings going forward.
“As a teachers’ union, we will comply the best that we can and give our members the information they need,” LaPlante said. “If they are not vaccinated, we want them to know what their next course of action: they need to be tested weekly, and if not, they could be excluded from work.”
Sycamore Education Association union members deferred comment to Lynnae Ihm, president of the union. Ihm, also a special education teacher at West Elementary School, was not immediately available for comment on Friday.
DeKalb school district issues unified statement
On Friday, DeKalb School District 428 school officials and leadership from the DeKalb Classroom Teachers’ Association released a joint statement in response to Gov. JB Pritzer’s executive order regarding vaccination requirements for school personnel.
The statement said district officials “have been in touch with Unions leaders” to discuss an “action plan” in response to the executive order.
Deetra Sallis, D428′s director of human resources, said that “the urgency to release [the unified statement] was to show staff and the community that the district leadership, including the unions that represent many of the employees, were moving forward, collectively, to execute the actions of the executive orders.”
As of noon Friday, Sallis said that 109 employees declared themselves unvaccinated and that about 350 have not yet responded to the request to produce documentation through a districtwide survey. The district employs about 1,200, Sallis has said.
According to the governor’s mandate, those who don’t provide proof of vaccination are to be considered unvaccinated and must also test weekly.
According to the executive order, any school personnel who are unvaccinated and don’t show proof of a negative test must be excluded from work. Sallis said that “excluded from work” means that the staff will be sent home from work and told they cannot return until they have proof of a negative COVID-19 test result.
In an internal district correspondence sent to DeKalb 428 employees Thursday, obtained by the Daily Chronicle, staff members were informed that they can use their accrued time off if excluded until they produce a negative test or proof they’re fully vaccinated. Accrued time off includes sick, vacation, personal or floating holiday days off, according to the email.
DeKalb Superintendent Minerva Garcia-Sanchez said that the mandate “has been issued by the governor, but must be adhered to by the school district.”
“Our goal for writing the unified COVID executive order statement is to gather all the information together in one place and be transparent about what is required,” she said. “All district employees must either be vaccinated or be tested weekly. As a district, we will comply with the mandate, however we are not responsible for testing our staff.”
To help accommodate staff, DeKalb district leaders have extended the first week’s vaccination or negative test deadline from Friday until Sunday, Sallis said.
The district also has coordinated two pop-up testing sites. The first occurred Friday and will take place from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday at the Education Center, 901 S. Fourth St. in DeKalb, and Gwendolyn Brooks Elementary School, 3225 Sangamon Road in DeKalb. The test clinics are not being administered through the DeKalb County Health Department.
Earlier this week, the DeKalb school board announced the district plans to start up SHIELD testing, a PCR COVID-19 test created by the University of Illinois that uses a saliva sample for a PCR tests, offering results in about 24 to 48 hours. The free weekly testing will be available to all students and staff. Sallis said that the target date of having SHIELD testing in the district is Oct. 13. SHIELD testing has been a slow rollout through the state health department, compounding on what school officials have said is a shortage of testing access in school buildings.
“The administration is very aware of the difficulties of limited testing available in the area, and we are working hard to support staff through the process,” Sallis said.
Buckner said that it is important for teachers to understand what the executive order means.
“We want to make sure our members know what the mandate means so they are informed to make a decision on their own,” she said. “It is a very individualized choice, something everyone must make on their own. We support all members the best way we can.”
Buckner and LaPlante said that they are looking forward to having on-site testing in school buildings going forward.
“Having pop-up testing sites and SHIELD testing is helping ease some of the angst and concern we originally heard when the mandate was first issued,” LaPlante said. “It has been difficult to get appointments for testing, especially because of our working hours during the day.”
Smooth data collection in Sycamore
Steve Wilder, superintendent for Sycamore School District 427, said the district gave staff until Friday “to finalize documentation, either a vaccination or a test testing results.” He said he believes gathering proof of vaccination or testing has “gone very well.”
“We had the vaccination documentation previously. We might’ve gotten one or two more, but for the most part that was already taken care of,” Wilder said. “Really what we’ve been gathering this week are the staff test documentation, and that’s gone pretty well. So today, we’re spending time just finalizing that and reaching out to staff members that we haven’t heard from yet before the end of the week.”
Wilder said staff “has been very good” about responding to the documentation requirements. As of last week, Wilder said about 70% of the district’s staff members were fully vaccinated.
“Obviously, there was some staff that may have personal feelings about the mandate, but they’ve responded well and have done what we’ve asked them to do to be in compliance,” Wilder said.
Wilder said he doesn’t think the district’s inability to provide weekly screen tests for staff has impacted their responsiveness.
“We’ve heard from some of our staff members who have difficulty accessing sites where they can reasonably get a test – something that’s cost effective, something that’s close so they don’t have to drive very far,” Wilder said. “Fortunately, this week, the health department was able to confirm that there are two testing sites that are up and running in our area.”
Local pharmacies, including CVS and Walgreens, also offer COVID-19 testing, as does Physicians Immediate Care in Sycamore.
According to county health officials, two known additional sites include one located near the former White Castle building and another located on Lincoln Highway near The Huddle restaurant.
Wilder said one of his main concerns about regular testing under the state mandate was its potential to have a “significant impact on staffing” and the district’s ability to keep school in person.
“And in the long run, it will to some degree,” Wilder said. “But I think that it’s shaping up to be much less of an impact than we thought it would be, or at least at the beginning.”
Wilder said the district is also in the process of implementing SHIELD testing in Sycamore, “but we’re not quite there yet.”
Wilder said the district continues to be affected by school bus driver and substitute teacher shortages, with the mandate causing him to worry that it would create additional staffing problems.
Wilder said school district staff members would have to get testing done on their own time, whether it be sick time or vacation time. If staff runs out of either time off, he said staff still could not come in and would have to take unpaid leave.
If an employee ends up taking a lot of unpaid leave as a result of COVID-19 testing, could that result in them getting terminated? Wilder said. “I sure hope not.”
“Our interest would be to work with any staff who falls into that boat, make sure that they have the opportunity to rectify that, and terminating staff for that reason is the last thing we would want to do,” Wilder said. “So as in any situation, we would provide those staff with due process. We would work with them as much as we could to avoid that.”