Teachers, staff respond to COVID-19 vaccine mandate

While many aspects of this school year thus far have been characterized by student experiences, important changes that also impact ETHS staff have occurred throughout the last few months. 

Despite the fact that ETHS initially planned on only requiring mask wearing for unvaccinated individuals, the rise in the Delta variant resulted in a change at the state level. While ETHS follows guidelines set by the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) and the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), the ETHS Health Center supported this state-wide decision and continued to urge ETHS staff to get vaccinated.

“The science of being vaccinated is, even with the Delta variant, vaccinated people are not getting [as] sick as the unvaccinated, so we know the vaccine works,” Health Center pediatrician Lynn Chehab explains.

Similarly to students, staff members were still encouraged to submit proof of vaccination so the administration could acquire accurate data. However, for some staff members, submitting this information proved to be difficult, especially as teachers prepared to return to the ETHS building while anticipating a year like no other. 

“There are people I know who are vaccinated who don’t want to submit [proof],” math teacher Michael Bahi says. “The common argument I hear is, ‘Why do we have to go through with this when we’re all already going through the stress of starting the school year?’ But, I hear both sides and hope [we] do what is scientifically best for everyone.”

As the year began, the COVID-19 dashboard was updated with information regarding staff vaccinations, a step that some saw as an intention to improve transparency. Still, some began to wonder if a vaccine mandate would be implemented by the administration, while others hoped vaccination status would continue to be a personal choice. As talk of a potential vaccine mandate grew both in the Evanston community and within the walls of ETHS, the Teachers’ Council, among other groups, was forced to reckon with what a vaccine mandate would mean. 

“As the President of the Union, I have been pretty supportive of [the vaccine mandate]. Frankly, the governor making that decision really takes a lot of heat off of the administration here,” Teachers’ Council President Rick Cardis says.

In addition to the Teachers’ Council, some staff members feel adamant that a vaccine mandate ensures the utmost safety for everyone in the ETHS community.

“We’re a public institution, and we serve students in the community. I understand that this is a hot button issue, but I feel [vaccines] should be mandated,” English teacher Paola Ruocco says. “I want people who are not vaccinated to understand that it’s about them, but also the people around them.”

However, other teachers felt less confident in the potential success of a vaccine mandate. 

“I feel like what people want to do with their bodies [or] whether they want to get vaccinated is up to them,” Bahi explains. “I’m not anti-vax, I’m not pro-vax, I’m pro-freedom.”

However, on Aug. 26, Governor J.B. Pritzker approved a state-wide vaccine mandate for educators and school staff, stating that any individual who does not intend to be vaccinated must first show proof of a valid exemption and then submit to weekly testing. 

ETHS responded to this mandate swiftly, encouraged all staff members to receive a COVID-19 vaccine if they have not already, and stated that any staff member who chooses not to receive a vaccine must submit to testing unless their exemption aligns with one outlined by the CDC. 

“Our expectation is that [staff] have what the CDC and the state consider a valid exemption,” Superintendent Eric Witherspoon states. “But otherwise, without a valid exemption, you need to be vaccinated. If [someone] is not, [they] will have to submit to weekly testing.”

While the IDPH intends to provide the necessary resources to Illinois school districts, this process may take time. However, until then, ETHS will still mandate weekly testing for unvaccinated staff. While vaccinated individuals are not required to submit to weekly testing, it is difficult to know how many unvaccinated staff members plan to receive a vaccination in the near future as opposed to submitting to weekly testing. 

Many staff members are in agreement that testing, vaccinations and continued safety protocols around COVID-19 are the safest way to approach school. With rising COVID-19 cases, some staff members feel the newly implemented vaccine mandate is the safest and most reliable way to return to some semblance of normalcy. 

“The only way to be safe in this building is if every adult is vaccinated and most kids are vaccinated,” science teacher Adam Held says. “I would love to see us do weekly testing of everyone. It seems big, but that would be a nice extra layer of protection.”