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D161 rapidly adapting in the face of state mandate, legal counsel and ISBE guidance

(Updated Friday, Sept. 3, at 9 a.m.)

A recent order from Gov. J.B. Pritzker that mandates vaccines or regular testing of educators across the state starting next week has Flossmoor School District 161 administrators and elected officials trying to figure out what that will mean for its schools. And plans have continued to change as the district’s legal counsel and the Illinois State Board of Education have weighed in over the past few days.

In a report delivered Monday, Aug. 30, to the district’s board of education, Superintendent Dana Smith noted that fully vaccinated staff members can continue to work without a testing protocol. And that has stayed true.

But based on initial legal counsel review of the mandate, Smith told the board Monday that anyone not fully vaccinated (but with at least one shot of the vaccine protocol), or those with religious or medical exemptions on file, would have to enter a COVID-19 testing protocol. At the meeting, he also said it appeared that staff members who are “unwilling” to be vaccinated could not continue to work in the schools through testing only, according to the legal team.

But in a follow-up email to the Chronicle, Smith said State Superintendent Carmen Ayala on Tuesday, Aug. 31, clarified that the vaccine mandate “allows school personnel to decide between getting vaccinated or producing negative COVID-19 test results.”

“In District 161, all unvaccinated staff members will need to test two times per week,” Smith wrote. “All staff members will be able to continue to work in-person.”

The initial concern over whether or not all teachers would be able to come to work next week was compounded by the fact that, despite Smith saying in July only 3-5% of the district’s teachers were not vaccinated, those numbers were based on information collected “anecdotally” and some staff members may have been “reserved” in their responses at the time. Smith said Aug. 30 the number of unvaccinated teachers may be higher than those previously disclosed figures, though at the meeting he could not yet provide an exact number when asked by a board member and the Chronicle.

“Frankly, our vaccine percentages are lower than we anticipated,” Smith said.

On Wednesday, Sept. 1, Smith followed up by email to say 77% of District 161 staff across all classifications – meaning teachers and a variety of other staff members – was vaccinated. He added those numbers are continuing to improve.

“We are thankful that our unvaccinated numbers continue to decrease as people show proof of vaccination,” Smith wrote.

There were also concerns about how that state mandate plays out with substitute, transportation and food service personnel, who are not technically staff but contracted by the district. The governor’s order applies to “all school personnel,” Smith said, which includes contract employees who spend 15 minutes or more within 6 feet of other adults or students.

“We need to make sure that they are providing proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test,” Smith said. “Our associate superintendent, Fran LaBella, is working closely with our external vendors to verify that we are following all of the guidelines.”

Though an agenda was not available as of press time, the school board tentatively scheduled a special meeting for 6 p.m. Friday, Sept. 3 — it may be canceled, if the board decides it is not needed — to address any additional information it has regarding the situation as next week’s deadline nears. Smith noted the meeting likely would not include formal action, but focus on how the district is adapting to the order and any new information that becomes available before the deadline.(Note: The Chronicle learned Friday morning that the tentative meeting would not be held this evening.)

“Since it comes as an executive decree, there is really no board action to take,” he said. “Certainly, board guidance is always welcome.”

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