Rockford teacher’s union rebukes Dr. Martell’s claim school staff spreading COVID-19

Local News

ROCKFORD, Ill. (WTVO) — The Rockford and Harlem teachers unions responded harshly to a statement made by Winnebago County Health Department director Dr. Sandra Martell that school staff are responsible for the majority of COVID-19 infections in 43 Winnebago County schools.

On Monday, Martell said there have been 69 positive cases of COVID-19 in 43 Rockford-area schools, consisting of 36 adults and 33 children. There are 438 people now under quarantine in the school system.

She said the average age of infections in school environments is 26-years-old, and said teachers and staff have not been diligently following mitigation guidelines to keep the coronavirus at bay.

In a letter sent Tuesday, Rockford Education Association President Mel Gilfillan and Vice President Chad Anderson said:

“The Rockford Education Association will not stand by and allow you to cast blame on our educators. After hearing your statements from your 9/21 press conference, any concerns that you have with implementation of what teachers warned you repeatedly all summer was a flawed plan, we would ask that you take up with RPS Central Administration and the Rockford Public Schools Board of Education. We are appalled that you would publicly shame the women and men on the ground floor who are risking their health and the health of their loved ones to provide the monumental service of educating our community’s children in the face of a pandemic. Rockford educators are working tirelessly to implement with fidelity the district plan that you championed.”

The Harlem Federation of Teachers sent the following: “The Harlem Federation of Teachers stands with the Rockford Education Association in its statement of disappointment in your public stance toward educators in light of the pandemic. The Federation moves further to point out that we feel that the Winnebago County Health Department has been woefully underprepared to handle the scope of infection that a reopening of schools has triggered.”

Mel Gilfillan, Rockford Education Association Union President, says Martell’s comments on Monday were unnecessary.

“I have seen everyone with their masks on, I have seen teachers working with students who are keeping their masks on, we have kids socially distanced the best that we can, we are following all the protocol,” said Gilfillan.

He says that teachers shouldn’t be the point of blame.

“It’s been tough, it’s been double the workload and add the stress that teachers have just like everybody else, worries about their health and the family’s health. It’s been a real rough start to the school year,” Gilfillan added.

Brad Sweet is the Co-President of Harlem Federation of Teachers Union. He also wrote a letter to Dr. Martell suggesting areas the school districts need more help in from the health department.

“We think the contact tracing…we feel it could be more efficient and a little quicker which could then keep the spread inside of a building from happening,” Sweet said.

“I don’t think keeping them at work while the tracing happens is right. We believe that can cause a further spread to students and to staff,” Sweet added.

Dr. Martell responded in a statement Tuesday afternoon, saying:

“I understand and appreciate the concerns that have been expressed by the Rockford Association and the Harlem Federation of Teachers.  We have a shared responsibility as teachers, staff, administrators, parents/guardians, and the greater community, to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 in the school environment. This is the same shared responsibility that has been highlighted in other news briefings addressing restaurants, bars, retail stores, places of worship, and other businesses in our community.

She wants adults to take responsibility for what they do outside of the school.

“The disproportionate number of adult cases within the school environments is concerning.  Adults have greater control and authority over their lives and potential exposures than children.  The ask of all adults, including teachers and parents/guardians, is to exercise this control and be intentional in our actions inside and outside the school environment to reduce the risk inside schools during the pandemic.  There was no intent to diminish the professional role of teachers in our community.  I value and respect the work of all those in the schools and I know that COVID-19 has caused many disruptions.  I appreciate all the efforts that have been made by so many, including teachers, administrators, parents and students.

“I recognize that holding us all accountable is difficult. The positivity rate for Winnebago County is now at 8% and the number of new cases is above 50/100,000 over the past 7 days.  We need to all work together to protect our lives and livelihood.  We all must be intentional about our actions and exposures.”

The health department released a list of 37 schools with reported coronavirus infections on Monday afternoon:

  • Alpine Academy of Rockford
  • Boylan Catholic HS
  • Brookview Elementary School
  • Carlson Elementary School
  • College of Nursing – Rockford
  • Cherry Valley Elementary School
  • Dorothy Simon Elementary School
  • Eisenhower Middle School
  • Flinn Middle School
  • Franklin Middle School
  • Froberg Elementary
  • Guilford High School
  • Harlem Middle School
  • Hononegah High School
  • Jean McNair Elementary School
  • Jefferson High School
  • Kinninnick Grade School
  • Lathrop Elementary School
  • Ledgewood School
  • Lewis Lemon Elementary School
  • Marquette Elementary School
  • Montessori Private Academy
  • Olson Park
  • Parker Early Education Center
  • Rockford Environmental Science Academy
  • Rockford Iqra School
  • Rockford Lutheran Academy
  • RPS Administration
  • Rockford University
  • Rock Valley College
  • Rolling Green Elementary School
  • Roscoe Middle School
  • South Beloit High School
  • South Beloit Junior High School
  • St. Bridget Catholic School
  • Summerdale Elementary School
  • University of Illinois College of Medicine Rockford

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