By Steven Spearie
The State Journal-Register
Posted Jul 10, 2020 at 3:48 PM
Teachers and staff members from Matheny-Withrow Elementary School are expressing concern to Springfield School District 186 Superintendent Jennifer Gill and school board members about how a positive COVID-19 case was handled at the school recently.
Some staff members who had come in contact with the person who tested positive weren’t told about the case until more than a week later.
Some personnel informed about the case said they were advised by the district not to tell other people about the matter.
District 186 leaders and union representatives from the Springfield Education Association and the Illinois Education Association met this week to further hammer out protocols if other cases arise.
“It’s a tough lesson to put us in a better place,” said SEA President Aaron Graves. “It’s likely going to happen again when people are coming in from other places around the country and school gets back in session.
“I’m confident we’ll get it right next time.”
Bree Hankins, a district spokeswoman, said district personnel learned about the case on June 27.
Angel Hoffek, a physical education teacher at Matheny-Withrow, said she had been around the person at the school well prior to the date the person tested positive. She was informed, with others from Matheny-Withrow, via an email from Nicole Moody, the assessment & school improvement coordinator for the district, on Sunday.
Hoffek publicly spoke at Monday’s school board meeting and was one of 19 teachers and staff members from the school who signed a letter directed to Gill and school board members.
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Hoffek said “the lack of transparency has put numerous people in all age groups at risk of exposure” including her family members and district students and families who she delivers meals to daily.
Hoffek declined to speak further on the record to a State Journal-Register reporter, saying she stood by her comments made Monday.
“Under no circumstances should information be withheld from anyone in the affected school community,” Hoffek said Monday. “Silence should not be the plan of action with dealing with this virus.”
Hankins said the district immediately contacted the Sangamon County Department of Public Health upon learning of the case to determine what action steps it needed to take.
The health department performed contact tracing of the primary contacts of the individual, Hankins said in an email earlier this week, and the district’s attorney worked with the health department to understand how the county performs contact tracing. A district administrator also followed up with limited primary contacts.
“We followed recommendations and immediately closed the building to perform deep cleaning and disinfecting practices at the affected building,” Hankins noted.
District and SEA and IEA members met on June 30 to discuss developing protocol together in cases of further COVID-19, among other discussion items.
That was the same day Graves asked the district if it could confirm concerns he had heard about the positive case.
Graves said some staff members were told about the case earlier than the July 5 email, adding that some of those staff members were advised “not to tell anyone else.”
A letter drafted by teacher and staff members from the school echoed that sentiment.
“Image doesn’t trump the importance of safety of staff, community members and kids,” Graves said.
Natalie Mitchell, a Braided Behavior Support Systems strategist at Matheny-Withrow, said a lot of teachers are used to working in the building during the summer, whether it is on professional development or getting ready for the upcoming school year.
Mitchell, who also spoke at Monday’s meeting, said it is “erroneous to rely on someone’s memory of everyone they have come in contact with for a lengthy period of time, so there should be communication to all staff (members).”
Mitchell said she was not in the building during that time period. While teachers and staff members want transparency, Mitchell said she was buoyed by other things she head at Monday’s meeting.
“It made me feel better, that they were aware that this was an issue,” Mitchell said. “It has to be preventative and pro-active in all aspects. We believe our concerns were heard.”
“I want parents to know and feel confident,” Graves said, “that schools will be safe for everyone (in the fall). The right path forward to work collaboratively with the district to develop clear and transparent protocols to address (future situations).”
Contact Steven Spearie: 622-1788, firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter.com/stevenspearie.