Illinois teachers unions push bill for new health rules on all in-person schooling

Illinois teachers unions push bill for new health rules on all in-person schooling

Legislation backed by teachers unions would require the Illinois Department of Public Health to create regulations before in-person instruction would be allowed at all public, private and parochial schools. State control would replace local control.

If Illinois’ largest teachers unions get their way, in-person instruction at all Illinois public, private and parochial schools will be contingent on meeting new requirements to be devised and enforced by the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Illinois House Bill 2789, which originated with the Illinois Education Association and is endorsed by the Illinois Federation of Teachers, passed the Illinois House of Representatives April 22 on a vote of 70-42, with almost all Democratic members voting for the bill and all Republicans present voting against it. The bill is now pending in the Illinois Senate.

The IEA website states the bill is designed to codify COVID-19 pandemic protocols and the enforcement of them; however, the version that passed the House does not refer to COVID-19 or emergency situations at all and does not have an expiration date for the new regulatory regime. On its face it would affect when and how an Illinois school could offer in-person learning even after the pandemic recedes and the governor’s emergency powers expire.

IDPH and the Illinois State Board of Education, along with Chicago Public Schools and 86 other parties, filed notice they oppose HB 2789. Only four parties publicly supported the bill, and two were IEA and IFT.

“This takes away all local control,” said state Rep. Avery Bourne, R-Raymond, the only lawmaker to speak in opposition to the bill.

Private school leaders have also expressed alarm at HB 2789, noting the bill appears to permanently replace local decision-making on the details of school facilities and procedures with a single set of standards to be promulgated by the state health department.

What HB 2789 does

While earlier versions of HB 2789 were aimed at rule-making in times of public health emergencies, the bill that passed the House would require a new set of rules to govern procedures and facilities for all public and nonpublic schools providing any in-person instruction at any time.

The bill amends the Department of Public Health Powers and Duties Law of the state’s Civil Administrative Code to require IDPH to establish rules governing such things as personal protective equipment, cleaning and hygiene, social distancing, occupancy limits, symptom screening, and protocols for isolating sick students and staff at school.

IDPH is charged with disseminating information about the requirements to schools with the help of the Illinois State Board of Education. IDPH, along with local health departments, must enforce the rules by investigating complaints about noncompliant schools and taking action such as closing lunchrooms, libraries, classrooms, or any other spaces in the schools until any violations have been remedied.

The bill also amends the Illinois School Code to make offering in-person instruction contingent on a school’s meeting all the criteria to be developed by IDPH.

Illinois school rules during the COVID-19 emergency

Public, private and parochial schools have all been operating under emergency rules for over a year now.

On March 9, 2020, Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued a disaster proclamation concerning the COVID-19 pandemic under Section 7 of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency Act, invoking emergency powers. And since each disaster proclamation is limited to 30 days, the governor has issued 14 additional emergency proclamations since March 2020 to extend his emergency powers.

Pritzker ordered all public and private schools to close in the state for two weeks on March 13, 2020, and on April 17, 2020, the governor ordered Illinois schools to stay closed for in-person learning for the remainder of the academic year.

By summer 2020, however, Illinois cases had fallen sharply from their May 2020 peak. Much more had become known about the transmission of the virus and ways to mitigate its spread.

All regions of the state had moved to Phase 4 of the governor’s “Restore Illinois” reopening plan by the end of June 2020, which included the ability of schools to reopen for in-person learning.

In June 2020, the Illinois State Board of Education and IDPH jointly developed specific guidance for all Illinois schools to prepare their facilities and adjust their operating procedures for in-person schooling during the pandemic. The mandatory guidelines covered matters such as face masks, physical distancing, symptom monitoring and cleaning protocols.

Illinois’ largest teachers unions, however, asserted the guidelines were insufficient to keep teachers and students safe at school. The head of the Illinois Federation of Teachers insisted most schools should stay remote for the start of the 2020-2021 school year.

The Chicago Teachers Union, a local affiliate of IFT, rejected Chicago Public Schools’ plans to have students return part-time to classrooms in the fall and threatened to strike in January 2021 over CPS’ plan to reopen schools during the second semester. CTU’s refusal to return to work in person came as mounting evidenceshowed schools were not a significant source of virus transmission. In-person schooling had been conducted safely across the country and the state, including in more than 90 parochial schools and many other private schools in Chicago.

Concerns about HB 2789

The superintendent of Lutheran Schools of Central Illinois is one of the private school leaders to have publicly voiced concerns over the proposal for permanent new standards to be developed by IDPH under HB 2789. Trip Rodgers told FOX Illinois the schools under his jurisdiction already follow state and local health department advice, and that one-size-fits-all rules from Springfield might not take into account relevant differences among schools. He further questioned whether schools will have input into the formulation of the guidelines and worried this bill could “prevent schools from being in session and educating our children.”

Springfield Christian School put out a statement that noted it “work[s] closely with the local health department and local medical experts and ha[s] been one of the few schools to remain open for full-time, in-person instruction … every day” and that it is “directly accountable to our families” who “wouldn’t send their children here if it were unsafe.”

Private school leaders aren’t the only ones concerned about HB 2789. CPS filed its public opposition to the bill. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS officials engaged in protracted, months-long negotiations with CTU over reopening schools, with the union ultimately encouraging its members to refuse to report to work on the official first day back in class in January and then threatening to strike to get CPS to back down.

Public school districts across Illinois that have managed successfully to hold in-person schooling this year, such as Morton Unit School District 709, also could stand to lose if the bill results in overly restrictive rules that would have prevented schools like those in District 709 from offering in-person instruction to students.

Moreover, it is difficult to imagine how IDPH could arrive at useful, detailed guidance for all Illinois schools that would address the changing landscape of the current COVID-19 pandemic, prove relevant after the COVID-19 threat recedes, and be appropriate in a different kind of public health emergency.

Teachers union leaders across the nation and in Illinois have resisted calls to resume in-person learning over the course of this school year, and organizations and public officials allied with teachers unions as well as unions themselves have even worked to get nonpublic schools to be forced to close during the 2020-2021 school year. It is not surprising schools and districts that managed to provide safe, in-person learning for their students – or tried hard to do so in the face of union opposition – might worry about an in-person schooling bill conceived of and pushed by IEA and IFT and passed late at night.

The fact that the bill passed with 70 votes shows the outsized power of Illinois’ teachers unions.

Want more? Get stories like this delivered straight to your inbox.

Thank you, we'll keep you informed!