SEA: District 186 needs to have comprehensive plan in place “for safe return” of students, teachers

By Steven Spearie
The State Journal-Register

Posted Aug 5, 2020 at 10:29 AM
Updated at 7:36 AM

The head of the Springfield Education Association said he doesn’t think School District 186 has put into place a complete plan “for the safe return of students and staff.”

Wednesday’s statement from President Aaron Graves on behalf of the local union that represents some 1,250 teachers and other personnel comes after the school board voted in a hybrid/blended model for a return of students to buildings on Aug. 31, a week later than had been scheduled.

The statement, which went out to its membership Wednesday, said that “a comprehensive plan” establishing procedures for following Illinois Department of Public Health and Sangamon County Department of Public Health guidelines for a safe return should be in place by Aug. 14 “for SEA to consider a return to hybrid learning.”

If a comprehensive plan is not in place, “then the district should begin the school year with remote learning,” the statement added.

Parents and guardians from the district still can opt for a full-remote model for their students.

District schools have been closed since March 13 under Gov. JB Pritzker’s stay-at-home order.

Under the hybrid/blended model, students will have two days of instruction on either an “A” or “B” day schedule Tuesday through Friday, said Bree Hankins, a spokeswoman for District 186. Monday will be a blended remote learning day each week.

A little over half the students who have registered with the district so far have chosen the hybrid/blended model. Student registration is continuing online and in person, said Hankins.

Board president Scott McFarland said he believes the in-person option can be offered safely, but if the COVID-19 numbers worsen in the area that remote-only learning for all students is an option.

Sangamon County reported 39 new COVID-19 positive cases on Wednesday.

Monday’s board meeting sparked a spirited and sometimes contentious discussion around safety protocols. The hybrid/blended model passed on a 4-3 vote.

The vote was taken three-and-a-half hours into the meeting.

McFarland, Tiffany Mathis, Bill Ringer and Anthony Mares voted for the plan. Michael Zimmers, Micah Miller and Judith Johnson voted against it.

A last-minute amendment advanced by Zimmers, the board’s immediate past president and a former educator, calling for remote learning for all students was defeated by a 4-3 vote. The outcome was on the same lines as the hybrid/blended plan vote.

The Aug. 14 date referred to in the statement, Graves said, was a date that a board member asked District 186 Superintendent Jennifer Gill to share details of the “Return to Learn” plan with other board members.

That date to publish a more detailed plan will be met, Hankins said.

Graves on Wednesday told The State Journal-Register that school personnel are frustrated with a lack of particulars, especially surrounding the in-person part of the return.

“Without details and parameters lies all sort of doubts and concerns and the potential for this to go all wrong,” he said.

Specifics of how students are scheduled, Hankins said, “are in development to best match teachers and students in their preferred model of delivery.” Student schedules will be published at a later date, she said.

Graves added that “nothing is off the table” as far as future action by SEA members, including informational pickets, rallies and demonstrations, though none had been scheduled as of Wednesday.

That same sentiment was hinted at last week when the Illinois Education Association, of which the SEA is a member, and the Illinois Federation of Teachers issued a joint statement about ensuring the safety of schools.

On Thursday, the district is scheduled to return to the impact bargaining table with the SEA representatives for a second session. Impact bargaining addresses matters like sudden changes in working conditions.

A recent SEA anonymous poll before Monday’s vote showed that 72 percent of its members expressed a willingness to start the school year remotely.

On Tuesday, the Springfield Ball Charter Board voted 4-0 to accept a plan to have its 300-plus students begin the academic year with remote learning.

The charter school, the only one in Springfield, is part of District 186, but has its own governing board.

At least four other area school districts, Rochester, Taylorville, New Berlin and Auburn, will also start their school years with remote learning. The Chicago Public Schools also scrapped a plan Wednesday that would have included a mix of in-person and online learning in favor of a remote-only model.

Contact Steven Spearie: 622-1788,,