Maria Barroso, president of the Evanston/Skokie District 65 Educators’ Council (DEC), sent an email to the union’s members Thursday, November 18, encouraging them to prioritize their mental health and take a sick day on Monday and Tuesday of Thanksgiving week.
The following day, District 65 Superintendent Devon Horton announced that all District 65 schools will be canceled Monday and Tuesday, November 22 and 23, due to a lack of available staff and substitute teachers. The 2021-2022 school year will be lengthened by two days because of the cancellations, he wrote in an email to District 65 parents.
In his Friday email, Horton acknowledged that “this news will be difficult and may put working families in a bind.” In order to find services for families, Horton added, the district attempted to connect with community partners and childcare providers, but these efforts failed, due to staff shortages and other concerns expressed by these organizations.
Even with substitutes stepping in, Horton wrote that the district wouldn’t have nearly enough coverage and would therefore not be able to operate the schools safely. “This decision was made both in the interest of safety and the mental health of our team,” Horton’s email read.
In her email to teachers, Barroso stated that several factors, including an increase in COVID-19 cases, were causing stress and affecting union members’ mental health. Teachers who need “a day to just breathe” should call in sick, she wrote.
“If you are having a difficult time and are feeling overwhelmed, please take a sick day or two next week,” Barroso wrote. “You are human and need to take care of yourself.”
Barroso added in her email that there is a substitute teacher crisis, and that teachers should make sure their Seesaw or Google Classroom is set up, in case the District decided to go remote. “If there are not enough subs, the district will have to make the decision about next week,” she wrote.
Barroso asked union members to put in their sick days as soon as possible to give the administration time to plan. She stressed this again in a brief follow-up email sent Friday.
“Taking a day off is a good thing,” Barroso wrote, concluding her initial email.
Barroso and Horton did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the RoundTable.
This year, District 65 has had some difficulty securing substitute teachers, particularly due to the pandemic, according to District 65’s Director of Communications Melissa Messinger.
The district used to have the capacity to replace 85% of staff absences with substitutes before the pandemic. Over the last few weeks, according to Messinger, the fill rate has fallen to 60%, and with excused staff absences scheduled for this Monday and Tuesday, next week’s fill rate was just 21%.
“In the past, it may have been possible to combine classes or host large group activities. As we continue to prioritize the safety and health of our students and staff, these options are not currently on the table,” Messinger told the RoundTable.
With some parents also wondering why the district cancelled school entirely instead of moving online for Monday and Tuesday, Messinger also added that the substitute fill rate was low enough that both in-person and remote learning were not viable options this week.
Molly Curley, the parent of Nichols Middle School and Orrington Elementary School students, used to live in Chicago, where she said public schools usually at least had some place where kids could go if school got cancelled, like a public library, for example.
“My concerns are the kids being so far behind, and losing more time in school, and for those families who can’t stay home an extra two days, what that does to their households,” Curley said. “It just surprises me that the district doesn’t have somewhere, that’s not obviously going to house all of the students in District 65, but for some of them who just don’t have the option of staying home, that there’s not some kind of guidance that ‘This is a place that will be open for your children.’”
Curley also added that at this point, the district needs to go directly to teachers and ask what support they need so a surprise last-minute cancellation like this doesn’t happen again.
All District 65 families were able to pick up several days worth of meals at Chute, Haven and Nichols on Monday, November 22, between 8:30 and 10:30 a.m., according to Horton.