(The Center Square) – Teachers' unions are pushing for two bills in Springfield that would require in-person instruction at all Illinois schools, public or private, to be contingent on meeting requirements set by the Illinois Department of Public Health.
The measures also would have the department investigate and potentially shut down schools for not complying with COVID-19 mitigations, instead of local health officials managing such orders.
One bill has already passed the House, and a Senate committee has passed a similar version.
Zach Messersmith, director of policy for the Illinois Association of School Boards, said the part of the bill that allows for a teacher who feels conditions are not safe at school to walk off the job is a mistake.
“I think what we’ve heard a lot about is concern of a patchwork of one school might be doing this or one school may be doing that, and now we are going to have thousands of teachers that are going to be determining the abnormally dangerous conditions for themselves,” Messersmith said.
IDPH and the Illinois State Board of Education and 87 other parties have filed notice they oppose the legislation. Four parties publicly showed support, including the Illinois Education Association.
Sean Denny from the Illinois Education Association said the intent of the legislation is to streamline COVID-19 protocols and the enforcement of them.
“Very loosey-goosey approaches across the state and no one ever really knew exactly what they were supposed to be doing,” Denney said. “Some districts took it seriously and did well and other ones not so much.”
State Sen. Jason Barickman countered, saying the schools in his district did just fine on their own.
“I had a vast majority who created their own procedures and were able to navigate COVID throughout the year successfully while providing in-person learning,” Barickman said.
Private school leaders have also expressed alarm at the legislation, noting the bill appears to replace local decision-making by the IDPH.
In June 2020, the Illinois State Board of Education and IDPH jointly developed guidance for all Illinois schools to prepare their facilities and adjust their operating procedures for in-person instruction during the pandemic. The guidelines included face masks, physical distancing and cleaning protocols.
Teachers union leaders in Illinois have resisted calls to resume in-person learning over the course of this school year, including the largest union in Chicago. The unions have said they want to make sure school is safe for everyone.
On Thursday, Gov. J.B. Pritzker dismissed concerns about House Bill 2789.
"I've seen some of this noise on Facebook and Twitter. That bill has been adjusted significantly – you should go and look at the amended version of that bill, but the goal here is just to make it safe for kids in school and ultimately we need to make sure that schools have the ability to do that," Pritzker said when asked about the measure at a news conference in Chicago. "And that's what that bill is really aimed at."
He said the language of the bill had changed since it was first introduced
"Some of the provisions that were originally of concern to people – and this happens to legislation all the time – it gets introduced and then there adjustments that are made and amendments," he said. "So I think you'll find that it's a different bill than it was when people took it up and were complaining about it."