For Mike Jarvis, an Earth Science and AP Environmental Science teacher at Naperville Central, 2020 has been a struggle.
At the beginning of the year, his wife was diagnosed with cancer and has since endured several surgeries and chemotherapy. Upon completing her treatment, the chemotherapy has left her with a weakened immune system, as is typical for many cancer patients. She lives with asthma that is triggered by respiratory infection as well.
With the health of his wife in mind, Jarvis sought accommodations from District 203, asking to be allowed to teach his classes remotely.
His request was denied.
“I was willing to teach from home,” Jarvis said. “[But] the district insisted teachers had to be there two days a week [during Stage 1 learning].”
He navigated Stage 1 by taking off two days a week to avoid having to work from school. But once the start date for Stage 2 was announced and all full-time staff were told to work from their buildings five days a week, he saw no choice but to take a leave of absence.
“I’m very frustrated; I’m a competent teacher. I have the ability to teach students remotely,” Jarvis said. He also called the many changes to the school calendar and work conditions “especially hard for the teachers.”
Jarvis will not be returning for the rest of the semester.
A lack of accommodations
Jarvis says the district wasn’t willing to accommodate his request to teach remotely despite his circumstances, and that they didn’t offer him any accommodations beyond those in the “Return to Learn” plan.
“They said legally you are allowed to take a leave: if that’s what you choose, you can do that,” Jarvis said. “There was no going back and forth. It was essentially: take a leave or come in and follow our rules. There was no middle ground.”
But, according to Bob Ross, District 203’s Chief Human Resources Officer, his department goes through an extensive process of working through requests to try to provide support to employees.
“We’ll always talk to every employee and try to see what we can do to help them,” Ross said. “Some accommodations we’ve made for folks might have to do with increased PPE [and protective] shields.”
During the past several weeks, Central Times has spoken with District 203 teachers at the elementary, junior high and high school levels who were also denied accommodations that would allow them to teach students from home in situations where they either feared for their safety in their buildings or feared the consequences that working from school could have on family members. Some teachers were denied accommodations when asking for work flexibility so that they could provide childcare to their own children.
According to Dan Iverson, president of the Naperville Unit Education Association (NUEA), the teacher’s union for District 203, administrators are under no legal obligation to provide accommodations to staff whose family members are at risk for COVID-19.
Still, many area school districts are allowing staff to work from home if family members have serious medical conditions. For instance, Joliet West High School is currently allowing small numbers of students into the building, similar to District 203. But Jenn Galloy, an English teacher at Joliet West, was able to secure remote teaching accommodations because her child has medical needs that make him a high risk for potential complications if he should contract COVID-19.
“You had a choice if you wanted to go in or not,” Galloy said. “If we went hybrid… I would just have to prove why I would be a risk [to] him.”
Galloy does not support requiring teachers to work from school, nor does she believe teachers should have to take an unpaid leave of absence, especially if they have family members at risk for COVID-19.
“I would be frustrated with that response,” Galloy said. “Luckily, my school district is taking our concerns into consideration.”
The push to return to school buildings
The district hasn’t typically allowed staff whose family members have underlying health risks related to COVID-19 to teach remotely because they prefer that teachers work onsite to facilitate students’ return to schools. This comes at a time when a vocal group of community members continue to lobby for an immediate return to in-person learning and as the district’s scheduled Stage 3 hybrid phase draws near.
“We’re bringing students into our schools right now, so we need staff to work with the students,” Ross said. “We need staff in the building because that’s where the kids are supposed to be.”
Administrators hope that if teachers are in buildings, they can work face-to-face with students who need extra help.
“You don’t get a good understanding of how your students are doing through Zoom,” said Carrie McFadden, Assistant Principal of Operations at Naperville Central.
But many students, parents and teachers aren’t convinced that the district’s expressed reasons for returning to in-person instruction justify the denial of accommodations teachers like Jarvis requested.
“I never felt they gave a good reason why,” Jarvis said. “They said it gets you comfortable with safety protocols and makes the students feel like they’re in a classroom setting. I could throw in a [virtual] background of a classroom if that made students feel better, and adjusting to safety protocols could be done in a week.”
Jarvis contends that especially as most high schoolers are still learning completely via Zoom, it would not have made a difference, at least for the near future, if he taught remotely. Additionally, staff who are working from buildings are still doing their jobs in an isolated fashion, teaching students while locking themselves alone in classrooms.
“They wanted [to give] an opportunity for our groups to work in person,” Jarvis said. “Most [professional learning community (PLC)] meetings are happening on Zoom anyway.”
For their part, students would rather have their originally assigned teachers instructing from home than a substitute teaching from school, as that transition results in a disruption to learning.
“Our new teacher is very kind and is doing her best to manage all of [Jarvis’s] classes, but I personally feel our class is essentially starting over again,” senior Gabi Kwiecien said. “We are doing ‘get to know you’ presentations again and that time would have been used for other activities.”
Filling the gaps
According to District 203 adoption of personnel reports, 30 staff members took leaves of absence between March 16 and Oct. 19 district wide, though several staff members that the Central Times is aware of having taken a leave of absence for COVID-19 related reasons were not listed. Between the same period last year, 23 staff members took leave. Not all leaves were due to COVID-19 reasons, but the pandemic has definitely been a driving factor.
“We have people on leave, who, had the pandemic not happened, that wouldn’t be the case,” Ross said.
COVID-19 related retirements, resignations and leaves have contributed to staff turnover this year. While staff are always coming and going, the hiring process has been challenging during the pandemic.
“[Principal Bill] Wiesbrook has been working hard,” McFadden said. “He’s saying: ‘I’m calling everyone that is listed in our system for [job applications], and everyone I talk to is saying [they] have a job now.’”
Short-notice retirements, resignations, leaves of absence and an ever changing “Return to Learn” plan are additional hurdles for replacing teachers quickly.
“The longer time we have to go find someone, the better,” Ross said. “If someone leaves on shorter notice, of course that’s harder.”
Overall, though, Ross says hiring this year is going well.
“We’re stocking up on the number of substitute teachers we have available to us,” Ross said. “So far I think we’ve been able to keep up. It’s really important to us that we have the highest quality educators in the world.”
There are currently 103 job vacancies throughout the district, with 9 openings at Central. Three are for teaching positions, two for special education, two for building substitutes and two for support staff. For the unfilled teaching positions, teacher overloads, instructors teaching extra classes, are used as a temporary fix.
Many students are frustrated that teachers with extenuating family medical situations aren’t allowed to teach remotely.
“I was really shocked because the district wasn’t taking into consideration someone who was sick and could potentially die,” Kwiecien said, referring to Jarvis’ wife. “I took this personally because he’s a great teacher and he’s super passionate about his job.”
Kwiecien, one of Jarvis’s AP Environmental Science students, has started a petition on Change.org asking D203 administrators and board members to allow remote instruction as an option for teachers. As of Nov. 10, 1,353 individuals have signed it. Central student ambassador William Ma also brought the petition to the attention of the district at the Oct. 19 Board of Education meeting.
Individual building administrators, though privy to specific staffing circumstances, aren’t typically involved in these kinds of human resources decisions.
“I don’t think we’re really asked for input: ‘would you like this teacher to teach remotely?’” McFadden said. “Obviously we’re going to say that our current teachers are the best ones to teach [our classes], hands down.”
At the end of the day, teachers, students, family members and even other administrators are confused and frustrated by the district’s decisions to not provide accommodations for these staff members.
One of Jarvis’s biggest worries about taking a leave of absence is what will happen to his students.
“I’ve heard many times we want to try and provide stability to students at this time,” Jarvis said. “Obviously, this makes it less stable.”