Alternative to Quitting: Unions

Recently, a resignation letter caught my attention:  A teacher of 24 years from Lyons Township High School (LT) quit and published his reasons for leaving.  And those reasons do strike this retired teacher (33 years total, with 8 at Peacock Jr. High in Itasca and 25 at Hinsdale South High School in Darien, both in Illinois) as legitimate issues which currently plague classroom teachers throughout the country.  Any intrusion between a teacher and his students is to be regarded skeptically, but the trend in the U.S. lately has been for everyone to stick their noses into this important relationship, generally to the detriment of both teachers and their students.

I could get into the specifics of what has gone wrong at LT to motivate this educator to quit, but the bottom-line problem currently raging in our public schools is who knows best what should be going on in our classrooms, same as it has been…well, forever.  From getting 50% credit for doing no homework and no failure policies (two changes cited in the LT letter) to so-called “critical race theory” to following health recommendations to when to use remote learning to gender/sex education to security, the debates about our schools have little to do with public education’s only real purposes: the fostering of independent critical thinkers capable of becoming productive contributors to civic stability and progress as well as providing basic reasoning skills for coping with the social problems our communities face, including battles over authoritarianism, racism, environmental degradation, public health, women’s rights,  and/or gun violence. 

But neither the specific rabbit holes to which each of those other issues leads nor the overall question of how to channel the interests/concerns coming from those outside the schools in productive ways is what caught my attention here.  What gave me pause was how powerless teachers are feeling, especially when I don’t think it needs to be that way.  Overreaching governors in Virginia and Florida to say nothing of state legislatures and school boards in many other places have dictated new rules and restrictions designed to rein in and control what teachers can do in their classrooms, leading some teachers to leave public education rather than to acquiesce to policies they find harmful to their students.  Yet, there are methods for teachers to participate as equals in policy formation which impacts their working lives rather than completely ceding decision making to those who know little about what creates a successful school experience, which by all accounts, the resigning LT teacher had been providing.

In more than half of U.S. states, working conditions are mandatory topics for bargaining between school districts and teachers.  In Illinois, for example, the Labor Relations Act states, “The duty ‘to bargain collectively’ shall also include an obligation to negotiate over any matter with respect to wages, hours and other conditions of employment, not specifically provided for in any other law or not specifically in violation of the provisions of any law.”  This sentence states quite clearly that “conditions of employment” need to be negotiated with the exclusive representative of the teachers, which in almost every school district in Illinois would be their union.  In other words, if something is required for employment (a “condition”— some rule or policy for which teachers will be disciplined and/or fired if they fail to comply), that something is then a legitimate topic for negotiations between the school district and its teachers’ union.  Rather than quitting, teachers covered by collective bargaining agreements could utilize these laws to respond to any requirement coming from above which negatively impacts how they run their classrooms.  In Illinois, which I know best since it is where I worked, the union can file a “demand to bargain” about the new condition of employment, contract negotiations can be reopened, both bargaining teams can reassemble to negotiate new language on the new condition (rule or policy), and the new language can be added to the current contract as a memorandum of agreement.  Yes, technically, all other clauses of the contract could then also be renegotiated, but both sides could agree to limit negotiations to the single issue.  And yes, this process would be a huge pain for administrators and union representatives (who are typically also classroom teachers), which is probably why it doesn’t happen much.

But the “hassle” of renewed contract negotiations should not mean teachers have to quit rather than having a say in how they do their jobs.  When a new policy comes raining down on teachers from above (administrators) or outside (governmental agencies) or a combination of the two (school boards reacting to the complaints of parents or community groups), just the threat of having to bargain is a way for teachers get a seat at the table as the vital shareholders they are.  With a vigilant teachers’ union which will insist on following the labor laws already in place, teachers can have significant input into these decisions and can help to prevent some of the ridiculous outcomes we hear teachers citing in their resignation letters.  Even if the contract were not reopened and both sides figured out a more informal way to resolve the issue, the potential of having to bargain the new condition of employment would force otherwise headstrong administrators or recalcitrant school boards to allow for teacher input into how the new condition would be implemented, or if it would be implemented at all.

And there are other union/contractual solutions to this lack of teacher input:  We created a clause when I worked at Hinsdale South which required the union be notified if any decisions which might impact working conditions were being contemplated.  This clause also allowed the union to name specific teachers to be on the various committees where these kinds of decisions were being worked on so they could represent the union’s (teachers’) position.  The key idea is that administration/school boards work cooperatively with their teachers to resolve anything which impacts how they do their jobs.  I know many of you have a strong antipathy to anything associated with something called a “union.” (Why do you think many teachers belong to the National Education Association and you rarely hear education labor leaders referring to their organizations as “unions”?)  But keep in mind that in most schools, union members and the teaching staff are one and the same, with the leadership also coming from the ranks of working teachers who volunteer their time (mostly) to do union…excuse me…association work.

I do have first-hand experience with how a “demand to bargain” works:  While teaching at Hinsdale South, I questioned my district’s right to require me to use an on-line grade program to record my students’ progress. (It did help that I had been our teacher union’s chief negotiator for two contracts and a past grievance chair as well).  In very short form:  Administrators told me I had to use the district’s on-line grading program; I started using it (since any teacher can be fired for insubordination—disobeying a reasonable administrative request), but told administration I would be filing a demand to bargain on this requirement since it was now a “working condition;” they consulted their lawyers about my rights to do this; and then an assistant principal quietly told me I wouldn’t have to use the program after all.  I assume the lawyer told them I was within my rights, since no further announcements about using the grade program’s being “required” were made.  (Since I was only a year or two from retirement and everybody else had already accepted the grade program as a “requirement,” I didn’t call the union’s attention to my personal victory, especially since no one else seem concerned over the grade program, and I had gotten my way.)  And I do believe that the same approach could be used to force administrators at LT at least to work with the teachers before imposing silly policies like 50% homework credit for doing nothing.

As a side note (Translation:  Major Digression Ahead!), this example illustrates the genesis of the current union neglect when it comes to utilizing collective bargaining laws to force consideration of teacher positions on working conditions to which administrators and school boards are making unilateral changes.  Few realized it at the time, but the digitalization of our schools started us on the road to getting 50% credit for not even bothering to turn homework in and policies making it harder to issue failing grades.  You see, as grade programs infiltrated public education to the point where everyone now uses them, the hodge-podge, individually created, teacher-centric grading systems of previous generations all got tossed in the trash.  I taught from 1979-2012, and I saw, used, and evolved a variety of assessment systems during that time:  Some teachers relied on assignments for points, others gave letter grades exclusively, some counted their finals as 10% or 20% of the semester grade (if they gave a final at all), some based much of the grade on classwork, and some focused much more on tests, to list a few of the different approaches you might find in the same school or even department.  Everybody pretty much did their own thing, with little direction from above.  Me?  I used a hybrid of points for graded assignments along with 25% of the grade I called “Class Participation” which was a catchall for things like non-graded homework assignments, volunteering during class discussions, taking care of missed work swiftly, promptness, courtesy, and generally being a decent human being.  Yeah, I was on thin ice then; today, I would be fired for using such subjective, non-quantifiable things as part of a grade.  (Even though I, an ex-English teacher, still argue those subjective things happen to be significantly more important than a kid’s ability to remember to put in the Oxford comma, crucial though that skill is and will always be.) 

If every teacher’s having a different system sounds chaotic and as if it would lead to different results depending on the teacher you had, that’s only because it was and it did.  If you had Mr. Jones for English I, you would get an A if you turned a few things in, didn’t screw around during all the movies he showed, and laughed at his jokes; Bs were tough to come by if you were unfortunate enough to get Ms. Smith, infamous for her pop quizzes and tough writing expectations; and you could get any grade you wanted in Mrs. Jones-Smith’s class if you could stay awake through her droning lectures.  Yep, it pretty much depended on the teacher, didn’t it?  Of course it did, and it still does, but grade programs created the unintended consequence of requiring much better consistency on the part of the students about turning in work done out of class to get decent grades. 

Once grades became digitalized, everything came down to points—you can do all kinds of fancy things with these programs in terms of weighting grades’ values, but you still have to assign some point value to everything you want to grade.  So, if you assign homework for practice—things you want the student to do in order to hone skills, not for a grade—you still have to give it a quantifiable number the program can digest.  Logically, most teachers simply assign a point value, say 10, and give students all 10 points if they do the assignment.  Remember: It wasn’t assigned to be graded.  And that’s all well and good when students turn in the work.  They get a perfect 10 out of 10 on something they might have slopped off five minutes before class, so for those who diligently turn everything in, grade programs have been a boon.  Sadly, there is generally a percentage of kids in average classes (advanced or “academically talented” classes are another story entirely) who just do not turn in homework often, especially if it requires much time to do.  Those kids now rack up the 0s on homework in prodigious numbers.  And as any statistics-oriented person can tell you, getting zero points on assignments makes your grade plummet in a hurry to depths from which it cannot easily recover. 

This is easily illustrated:  Two students get the same grades on two tests, 85/100 for a total of 170 out of 200 points.  Five 10-point homework assignments accompany those tests. Student 1 does all five for 50 additional points, whereas Student 2 does only two for 20 points.  Now, the total points in the class come to 250, with Student 1 scoring 220, or 88% (B or B+, depending on the system), while Student 2 lags at 190, 76% (middle C).  And if that less-motivated student hadn’t done any of the 50 points of homework, he would instead have 68% (D).  I’d argue he earned it, but you can see how fast a kid who scored solid Bs on both tests could wind up with serious grade trouble once point values have been assigned to homework assignments.  Major out-of-class projects that don’t get turned in or made up have an even more dramatic effect on grades.  If Student 2 had missed a 100-point project instead of the 50 points of homework, this B-test-taker would have failed the class (56% or 170 points out of 300). 

You can certainly make the case that Student 2 deserves exactly what he gets, but it’s a big problem for any high school administrator when classes required for graduation are being failed by significant numbers of kids, and grade programs have eliminated much of the discretion teachers often employed over the years.  Since I taught for 33 years, I know a secret or two about how most teachers operate, and I can assure you that virtually every D- ever assigned on a report card should have been an F.  Teachers sometimes manipulate numbers and shade things in order to make grades turn out how they want—and in my experience, 99.5% percent of the time, in dire situations when teachers decide to fiddle with grades, they assign a higher grade than the gradebook actually showed.  With grade programs, however, that discretion has become harder to justify, to say nothing of the fact that grade digitalization has led to the posting of grades online, where students and their parents check them daily.  If a kid has a 45% on-line, it’s tough to give him/her that charity D-.  Yes, since I never used grade programs, I did give out grades like that a time or two in my career, even though the vast majority of my 45% students failed.  But now, the new grading policies artificially inflate percentages so that grades (such as they have become) can be posted on-line.  Instead of the occasional, teacher-determined “adjustment” of a bad grade, administrators have utilized the idiotic, blanket, 50%-for-nothing policy, as well as other clumsy “fixes” so students can pass without doing much of what the teacher has determined is needed.

As we turn back to the original focus of this essay, it becomes clear why a competent, impactful, creative teacher would reject the idea that it’s reasonable to give credit for assignments not turned in or that it’s not okay to limit cell phone usage during class (another major problem for many teachers) and quit instead.  Much more common, however, are teachers who cede what they know to be the best way to educate their students in order not to get in trouble with education’s noisy, clueless critics, and in the case of many administrators, those who are seeking only that which makes things go smoothly, regardless of the negative impact on the education of young people.  Especially for teachers who worked many years before these new policies materialized, having those with little knowledge of what they do in their classrooms direct them to abandon methods they’ve spent years developing is a morale-crushing experience.  Being forced to do that which you know to be wrong is hardly the work-approach I want in my community’s teachers, but that’s what’s been happening at warp speed the last couple of years. 

Strong words, I realize, but in the debate about how to make public education better, we have to recognize how important a reasonable level of independence for teachers is and that this independence allows teachers to provide individualized, unique classroom experiences.  Of course, the idiosyncrasies of some teaching divas might drive you crazy and seem way too arbitrary—even capricious—but in standardizing the art of our classroom leaders, we do every student who will one day wind up in the working world of rough edges a huge disservice.  Can you imagine telling your boss that you should get 50% of your salary for doing nothing?  Does anyone think a permission note from your mom to your supervisor will keep you from being fired for refusing to focus on your job duties so you can text your friends?  The world simply does not function anywhere close to the inane rules many schools are enacting in response to changing trends. 

Somebody’s got to temper these ill-advised concessions to technology (to say nothing of clueless politicians, administrators, or community members), and collective bargaining laws often provide teachers and their unions with some of the anti-stupid ammunition they need.  No, this will not make unions more popular in a climate that has been anti-labor in recent years, especially in areas where collective bargaining laws have helped make teacher pay much better (e.g., high school districts in DuPage or Cook counties), nor will many administrators appreciate those trouble-making union leaders.  (As a long-time union activist, however, I found my work day went much, much better when I had my administrators’ respect rather than their love, for what it’s worth.)  But I would encourage teachers—and particularly those who are also their school’s union leaders—to use all the tactics they have to fend off changes from those who don’t know or understand what makes a quality classroom, even if some of those discussions are uncomfortable, or even confrontational.  Bottom line, insisting that your state’s collective bargaining laws be appropriately applied is one of most effective tools teachers have in warding off excesses coming from outside their classrooms.  And it’s a much better alternative to giving up or quitting.

For more on how public schools can be improved, you can check out my e-book, excerpts of which can be seen here.

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Communications Breakdown, Part II

“Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.”                              Robert Frost (1874 – 1963)

Last time, we reviewed the decline in society’s ability to come to anything approaching consensus on baseline facts/realities regarding issues such as curricular choices in schools, public health measures, election results, and ecological threats as we try to make decisions on how to move society forward.  Our failure to agree on the fundamentals makes it impossible to reach necessary compromises on subjective choices, leading to endless stalemates and acrimonious feelings about those who have now become our “enemies,” even though these same people used to be family, friends, coworkers, and anonymous multitudes toward whom we had born no ill will.  Humanity’s technological/informational evolution has contributed to this process mightily, as we’re now able to “prove” the rightness of our opinions with data, expert analysis, and facts from a seemingly bottomless supply.  Unfortunately, those evil manipulators on the other side claim possession of better data, more expert analysis and “alternative facts,” to say nothing of the libelous, slanted, completely unfair personal attacks they level at us while ignoring the righteous fire with which we blast them.  And blast them we do, instantly without remorse/thought/decorum, via anonymous comments sections, Facebook posts, and/or tweets which allow for spontaneous, vile characterizations that have nothing to do with the reality of what’s being discussed.  Thus, the cycle intensifies in more tribal, emotional, and dangerous ways.

From my vantage point (Sixty-something, retired high school English teacher, who’s had a relatively liberal/Democratic and totally privileged middle class white man’s life, which helps to explain my arrogance in believing I have a worthwhile opinion to express on this; although, in my defense, society’s powerful [i.e., old white men] have been telling me my opinion rocks ever since I was born), the key problem isn’t with those spouting off all the verbal lava which creates the controversy; we’ve always had opinionated, aggressive souls who have shouted for our attention.  No, the difference seems to be the combination of the immense number of shouters of which the rest of us cannot possibly hear even a small percentage, and our technology which has allowed us to edit that which we do take in to the point where we’re not coming in contact with any ideas which contrast with our own.  We’ve stopped trying to understand what those who disagree with us believe and/or thinking for ourselves, allowing alliances, affiliations, rumors, labels, and biases substitute for the difficult work of using facts and empathy to adjust our views to accommodate those different from our own, or at least to give them due consideration. 

That doesn’t mean we should simply accept anything which crawls into our brains, obviously.  But we don’t do anybody any good when we resort to blind acceptance/rejection based on the message/idea/opinion’s source.   The issue is that we’ve stopped relating/listening to each other in order to understand reasoning different from our own, instead rolling out all our counter evidence and expertise before the other side has even finished explaining its position.  Rather than trying to understand the “why” behind different people’s views, we dismiss their facts and counter-attack with sources and data we know they won’t accept since they’ve already labeled our stuff as nefarious propaganda.  In short, there’s never an exchange, dialogue, interaction, or discussion, much less a meeting of the minds to forge the compromises needed to make things better.  So… the environment gets worse, blacks keep getting disproportionately killed by the police, Presidential elections remain contested, vaccines and masking protocols stay controversial, curricula taught in public schools get misinterpreted, voting rights are restricted, unbalanced teenagers keep getting assault rifles, and access to abortion becomes a combat zone.

Those last two offer an interesting insight into the mental gymnastics we often use to avoid modifying our precious positions and could lead us to an organization which demonstrates how to do better as we go forward, if we can ever bear to give up our hate:  Most of us (including this author) engage in significant cognitive dissonance over gun control and abortion.  My side (the correct one, of course) yearns for tight government control over anyone’s ability to own and operate a gun.  (I’m talking Japan, people, which had one gun murder all last year!  And Shinzo Abe’s assassination has been the only one so far this year.)  When it comes to abortion, I am not “in favor” of it in the same way I’m in favor of people wearing bike helmets, but I readily agree that it’s none of my business and that the ultimate decision is between a woman and her doctor.  I oppose the government’s involvement, especially when it comes to whether or not the procedure can be done (or pill be taken, as the case may be).  You see how those approaches to governing contradict fundamentally.  I rationalize that the harm guns can do to innocent people cancels out Americans’ individual right to possess what they want, while simultaneously claiming individual rights are more important than the harm abortion does to the unborn. 

Flip those two positions and you have what millions of other Americans believe:  1. Murdering an unborn child negates any rights the mother might have and necessitates strict regulation if not an outright ban, and 2. The government has no business sticking its foolish regulations between lawful citizens and their right to protect themselves with any gun (and however many) they want to have.  Has it occurred to any of the ardent gun rights, anti-abortion adherents or the passionate gun control, pro-choice believers just how contradictory their reasoning has to be to support those two positions?  I’m guessing not very often. How is it consistent for me to claim that the abortion decision shouldn’t involve the government at all, but that I want legislators’ full power to be used to clamp down on these dangerous weapons that make me hold my breath every time my daughters go to some public place?  Don’t second amendment advocates chafe when their calls for the government to stay out of their gun ownership choices get flipped so easily when it comes to the government dictating to pregnant women what they can do with their uteri?

But understanding that all sides aren’t completely sure how to draw the line where government regulation becomes intrusive at the cost of individual rights or when to restrain individual rights due to the harm exercising those rights might exact on others seems the key to finding reasonable, rational compromises that will bring about the most benefit for all.  And for these two issues (as well as the host of others which would also benefit from our finding compromises on the absolutes of freedom vs. restraints needed for the greatest good), we have a readily applicable and red/blue-state accepted model already in place:  the DMV.  Yes, the bane to many a fledgling driver, to say nothing of a dreary place on its best days, our humble Department of Motor Vehicles might be able to show us the way forward on gun control and abortion.  When it comes to what I see as a crucial freedom, we have somehow come to accept certain standards as necessary before we’re allowed to own or operate a motorized vehicle.  And understand that these societal requirements are clearly arbitrarily created, imposed, and enforced by the government, with little objection from anyone.  Bottom line:  The DMV can serve as an exemplary model of how our government, laws, and bureaucratic regulation work together to make all our lives better.

Automotive regulations across the country seem readily adaptable to gun ownership:  If you want to drive a car, every state has clear, specific training requirements culminating in a driving test, which must be passed.  Once those steps have been fulfilled, you get an ID issued which affirms you are licensed to drive, which all other states recognize.  And before you can own a car, it also must have a license, be issued plates, be insured, and have its identification number registered with its owner’s name tied to that number.  That you never hear complaints about this complicated system (except for ones about the efficiency of the bureaucracies which administer it) suggests that everybody has come to accept how it works.  Nobody attacks North Dakota’s regulations as conservative fascism any more than New York’s are seen as Libtard overreach.  So why wouldn’t it work for guns as well?  Before you get a gun, you should have to prove that you can safely use and store it, and all of them and their shooters should be registered the same way cars and their drivers are.  Many states’ DMVs also address the age question by allowing temporary permits to operate cars during the training period, issuing licenses physically different (horizontal vs. vertical setup) to call attention to the licensee’s age, having more frequent testing, and/or imposing more restrictions on new, younger drivers (as well as more frequent tests for older drivers).  The same could be true for younger/older gun owners, with just a few tweaks.   

I recognize that gun rights people see gun ownership as a constitutionally guaranteed right, but modern reality has proven that cars are a lot more necessary for individual freedom and the pursuit of happiness.  This is where the compromising part and listening to the other side’s point of view comes in.  Just because James Madison didn’t know what a dangerous, unnecessary hazard guns would become in modern American society doesn’t mean we’re forever stuck with his 18th century understanding of human rights.  Remember the whole slavery thing our founders sort of overlooked?  These guys were not infallible, and we’ve all got to recognize that.  And I keep coming back to all those other, significantly more consequential rules and regulations—on taxes, land ownership, and yes, CARS—that we all live with despite their much more intrusive, costly nature.  Think of the billions spent on car insurance, for example, as required by law.  It makes no logical sense that guns have to be exempt from well-established rules just because of the second amendment (which by its very name implies that changing or “amending” is something that we do in this country).

No, I haven’t forgotten the abortion problem; it’s just that many of my friends won’t like what comes next:  Those who want an abortion should go through a “similar” process before being granted permission for an abortion or permission to perform one.  Such processes are already in place in some states, just like for car licenses, but their purposes vary widely depending on where you live:  Many (before Roe was overturned) served primarily to make it as difficult as possible for abortions to be performed—from the counseling (by organizations opposed to abortions) to the regulations on abortion providers—laws were enacted primarily to limit access, which has been the case, especially for those with low incomes.  So, the first major obstacle to overcome is that safe, legal abortions should be available.  Yeah, that’s a significant hurdle right off the bat, but it was the law for fifty years.  Congress will just have to legislate abortion’s legality.  Remember that the government will never force anyone to get an abortion; we’re only talking availability here.

Once we have that, I have no idea what a reasonable, rational abortion-approval process would look like, but given the significance of aborting an unborn fetus, I can’t claim there shouldn’t be one, especially if I favor the gun licensing program advocated in the previous paragraphs.  From contraception and adoption education to understanding resources available pre- and post-abortion to wait periods, there should be experts convened to create a reasonable, humane process anyone seeking an abortion would go through.  Additionally, that process could be more controlled and restrictive when a minor is involved.  It does sound weird to me as I write all this, but I also can’t pretend to be objective about abortion when both of my daughters were adopted, and both biological mothers could have made different decisions about going to term.  And I don’t know what the equivalent of that training/driving test for those seeking an abortion would look like. (The equivalent gun usage training/test should be easier to put together, at least so it seems to this completely gun-ignorant essayist.)  Nor am I able to articulate what extra provisions would be appropriate for minors.  But just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be willing to discuss a compromise with those who oppose abortion entirely, especially given the extremes now in place or being planned.  We could be looking at a national abortion ban as soon as when the next Congress takes office in 2023.  I gotta believe that preventing that is worth some compromising, just like setting up a gun regulation system which prevents Uvalde tragedies would seem to be a good deal for those who don’t want Japan-like restrictions.

Of course, second amendment advocates and pro-choice activists will both reject these steps as unfair, too cumbersome, and unconstitutional, again showing the similarities of their positions in many ways.  But just as I know an abortion screening process would seem insulting and unnecessary to many pro-choice people, I have to concede that the gun rights folks would also be making concessions on access to guns.  It’s precisely that kind of give-and-take which all of our discussions on weighty issues currently lack.  We’ve become so accustomed to volume, anger, intractability, and ridicule rather than nuance, reason, empathy, and cooperation that we have a hard time seeing anything other than clinging to our “ideals” while refusing to consider any other alternative.  

Back when I was teaching freshman English, we would often work with the concepts of “Idealism vs. Pragmatism” and how each had its place in our personal morality.  (Atticus Finch’s seemingly futile defense of Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird was often the springboard from which these discussions would launch.)  But these “last century” discussions (I taught 1979-2012) tended to focus on the 20th century’s lack of idealism in a pragmatic, technologically advanced world—climate change action, voting rights steps, women’s rights laws, and anti-bigotry advances for racial minorities and gays were only partially being enacted then due to pragmatic compromises that wound up with only half a loaf of what had been proposed.  That half, though, sounds awfully filling when you look at the onslaught of extreme Supreme Court rulings this past session, which have lurched the country towards a conservative Eden, “idealistic” at its racist, misogynistic, environmentally destructive, gun-loving, money-worshipping (Will Citizens United never be overturned?) core. 

Yet, I was heartened by the efforts of U.S. Senators who managed to compromise their positions enough to get some federal legislation on guns passed recently.  That many on each side see the new legislation as weak doesn’t discount the truism we in my teachers’ union would often trot out after completing contract negotiations:  “If both sides are somewhat unhappy with the deal, then it is probably reasonable.”  You can’t argue the facts—no matter how small a piece you get of something, that small piece is still immeasurably larger than the nothing you would have had otherwise. And that tiny gun agreement can only result in more communication coming from both ends of the spectrum, which can lead to further points of agreement and—probably most importantly and necessary for the short term—less anger directed toward the “other side” as we focus on areas of common interest.  Maybe we can even come to recognize those with whom we disagree have no evil intent and are just human beings like us.        

Facing the challenges of getting along with each other certainly seems like a fool’s errand at the moment:  Pessimists tell us how awful things are compared to yesterday, optimists point out how awful things are compared to how they could be, and then they both post misleading, awful things about each other on Twitter.  There are so many aspects of our modern lives which call out for moderation and gradual adaptation, but we can’t seem to avoid falling for seductive habits which lead us to excess and extremes, whether they be opioids or political tribalism or Instagram.  Ultimately, we can only pledge our own efforts to assist with improving things: To moderate our extremist tendencies; To look past the rhetorical excesses of those with whom we disagree; To seek areas of possible compromise, no matter how small; and To hunt for a place where we can all co-exist comfortably, regardless of how gradual initial progress towards that goal seems to everyone. 

And that pledge can’t be conditional on the other side’s promising to do likewise.  Sure, not much can get done if those with whom I disagree won’t budge from their cherished ideals, but I can’t control what everybody else does.  I do realize the irony of coming to that fatalistic conclusion several thousand words into a two-part essay where I started out suggesting that there was a solution to our communication breakdown.  Ultimately, rock’n’roll (as written by David Lowery and performed by the band Cracker in the brilliant song, “Teen Angst”) sums up our final reality much more succinctly than I have been able to:  

“I don’t know what the world may need,

But I’m sure as hell that it starts with me.

And that’s a wisdom I’ve laughed at.” 

Maybe it’s time we all stopped laughing. 

Communication Breakdown

I taught English in junior high (8 years) and high school (25 years) during my career, so it caught my attention how “communication problem” has become a trope in news broadcasts:  The areas causing messaging difficulties have included politicians’ explaining legislation, school officials’ informing parents about curricular choices relating to race, health officials’ motivating/mandating the public to follow the latest pandemic guidelines, the police/gun owners’ clarity on exactly what constitutes “self-defense,” and everyone’s accepting that Joe Biden won the last presidential election. Our ability to impart objective information seems to be eroding more quickly than our shorelines—oh, I forgot that scientists have struggled to communicate the dire environmental horrors which will become commonplace (have already become, in many cases) unless we change our behavior/technology to avoid destroying the only planet on which we can currently survive.  At a time when consensus and unity on what we need to do has existential implications, we keep stumbling on what should be a given—agreeing where we are right now.

And I am part of a group (past and present educators) which bears at least some responsibility for this situation.  We are legally bound to send our children to school for at least eleven years (K-10 in Illinois) with most of them in the classroom for several years more.  Over those many hours, kids are supposed to be learning the basics of what it takes to function in our society, that which we have determined they need to know in order to participate positively in our society.  Given all that effort spent drilling these basics, why is it that we are so divided on just what the facts are?

To understand why institutional organizations, like schools, exert less influence than before, we have to look at public education’s evolution as a reflection of the community it has served over the years.  Before the information era (which came to dominance with the ubiquity of personal computers in our homes), the Pre-Digital Age invested schools with substantial authoritative power.  One of the key sources of our communal skill and knowledge was public education, and everyone pretty much accepted teachers as respected (if largely ignored and unsupervised) experts on what our kids needed to know and how to get that cultural legacy into their heads.  While Mom and Dad might have been amazingly ignorant about what was going on in our baby-boomer classrooms, we kids all knew there would be hell to pay if we got in trouble with our teachers.  “Our side” would be quickly dismissed once our trespass had been relayed, and there would be a consequence (i.e., punishment) which would land on us, often literally.  When it came to teacher-vs-student situations, the student lost almost every time, even if the only message the teacher sent was a mediocre grade.  So, whether or not we liked our teachers, we came to accept that all adults assumed schools knew better than we did and that to dispute their power was futile.

Please don’t view this description as yearning for a pseudo-idealistic, nostalgia-drenched educational utopia which we need to replicate.  I have no desire to advocate anything based on some mutated “Make American Education Great Again” model.  I’m just trying to explain how it was—good and bad—before our current situation.  There were many poor practices going on in the 1960s and 70s when I went to school, to say nothing of the social upheavals created by the erosion of faith in other institutions, as evidenced by the unpopularity of the Viet Nam war and changing attitudes on race and gender.  In middle-class suburban schools, however, teachers were pretty influential to students in a way that was much more absolute than it is today.

We all know what happened next:  From the 1980s on, access to information exploded, and that deluge has only increased exponentially every year since that first personal computer (PC) came home.  Not only did that PC’s capabilities grow at volcanic rates, but its size contracted to the point where most of us have over a million times more computing power on our phones than NASA did for the Apollo 11 moon trip in 1969.  And while we can debate the various pros and cons of this info torrent, there can be little doubt that public education’s share of “factual authority” experienced significant shrinkage as it became easier and easier to find different, often contradictory, information elsewhere.  Couple that ease of access with professional social media manipulators’ addictive propaganda flourishes, and it seems inevitable that we would wind up with parents’ berating and recalling school board members because they know better how to run the schools.

Nor is that to say those aggressive parents don’t have some valid points to make when it comes to schools’ including them in decisions which impact their children.  Those of us who taught in the 1970s (I started in 1979) recall the wholesale warehousing of special education students, regardless of their needs, in separate and completely unequal classrooms until parent advocates got the laws changed, and regulations (many, many regulations) followed.  All our institutions need oversight, evaluation, and regular updating; you’re either moving forward or backward.  Remaining static (which of course was the dream of every administrator for whom I ever worked) just isn’t possible.  So constant assessment of whatever data you can accumulate is necessary and should be an automatic part of any system’s structure. 

Our current situation, however, has fractured because there is so much more data available than any one individual or organization can possibly assimilate. That means we have to use filters which cull the pile of data to more manageable levels.  Unfortunately, those filter tools—intentionally or not—have led us to limited, slanted information streams tailored more and more, as the algorithms learn from our selections, to our biases.  Not only do those tools guide us to sources which only agree with our prejudices, they seek out opinions and views ever more extreme in the hopes of holding our interest longer, while completely eliminating those annoying ideas which come from those who think differently than we do, which we instantly delete should they somehow darken our feed. Thus, we never have to invest the slightest effort in understanding why anyone would be stupid enough not to agree with us.    

We’ve all been guilty of this on some issues in our lives—sports allegiances, popular music genres, and fashion styles have, do, and will continue to separate people into distinct camps:  To this White Sox devotee, for example, all opinions on baseball from those misguided enough to care about the Cubs are completely suspect, if not outright ridiculous, regardless of facts, experience, or reality in general.  Oh, and would you fashionistas shut the hell up about my lousy cargo shorts—they’re functional, dammit!  This kind of lunacy, however, when attached to more meaningful things like abortion, health care, the environment, and governmental services (like the police) seems amazingly short-sighted.  Will this separation and division continue to pollute what it means to be human to the point where we need to know the political affiliation of everyone with whom we deal in order to interact with them?  “Sorry, I don’t go to Republican doctors.”  (Actually, we’re already there, to a certain extent, in that I couldn’t imagine trusting Dr. Rand Paul [ophthalmologist] with my eyes or Dr. Ben Carson [neurosurgeon] with my brain.)  Do we need Republican-only restaurants to be sure the servers won’t spit in our food or Democratic hair stylists to guarantee our dos will really be cutting edge, depending on whom we support in 2022?

Sadly, that kind of absurdity sounds less and less inane as we continue to bore down on our personal truth with no willingness to hear anything from outside our hardened silos.  The validity of facts has always been dependent on their sources’ reliability, but we’ve been erecting barriers in the wrong places and giving way too much weight to irrelevant, dumb criteria in how we evaluate those sources.  We’ve also institutionalized the habit of dismissing anything, regardless of how valid, supported, or true it is should we determine its source comes from the “wrong” side.  “With both Chris Wallace and Shepard Smith no longer on Fox, why would I ever be interested in what that dumpster fire of a network broadcasts?  Tucker Carlson?  Puh-leeze!”

And that, my friends, leaves us in our current situation, where creative, aspirational humans are frustrated and blunted at every turn by other frustrated, blunted, creative, aspirational humans armed with a completely different set of facts and expert opinion which “proves” they are right and urges that those who disagree should be demonized, attacked, rooted out, and banished from their seat at the table of humanity.  Sadly, there aren’t even any glib or facile solutions to this problem which claim an easy solution even though they achieve absolutely nothing except to make us feel morally superior when we share the condescending, fluffy meme on our social media feed. 

This issue, I’m afraid, has evolved its divisive, habit-forming nature to the point where most of us cannot imagine how anyone could possibly be so stupid (morally bankrupt, uninformed, illogical, blind, poorly reared, uneducated, ignorant, privileged, entitled, evil, and/or any other negative trait we can hang on our enemies) to disagree with us on whatever issue is currently stirring passions.  So, we dismiss entire groups of people as irrelevant and moronic—not exactly a recipe for creating more empathy and compassion, to say nothing of finding a path to compromises which lead to progress (if that poor word can even be used anymore without political connotations).  I do think there are some slow, incremental, long-term things we all have to do in order to move beyond this stage in our social/cultural development, but we’ve certainly set a pretty nasty, self-perpetuating system in motion.  It’s kinda like the creeping Charlie in my front lawn:  It’s impossible to eradicate quickly without resorting to some serious herbicidal poison—the kind I’m unwilling to go anywhere near given its toxic side effects, just as I can’t accept that the only way forward is to shun and belittle everyone who voted for Donald Trump.  So next time, we’ll pull on some gardening gloves, pad our fragile knees, and get down on the lawn to start weeding. Until then, if you’d like to see some ideas on how public education can be improved, you can find excerpts from my e-book here.

Sterigenics: Winning the War, Part 4

In our first three essays (Part 1, Part-2, and Part 3 ), we recounted how a small group of past employees of Hinsdale South High School (South) banded together to notify other past employees of their exposure to ethylene oxide (EtO) while they worked at South.  This Notification Project was inspired by the efforts of a grassroots community group, Stop Sterigenics, which successfully got the source of that EtO, two Willowbrook Sterigenics medical instrument sterilization plants, closed—temporarily in February 2019, and permanently seven months later.  The efforts of both Stop Sterigenics and this group of past South employees in taking on the problems of local pollution sources and the challenges of informing past workers of potential health issues which came to light later (in some cases, decades after employment had ended) points to some larger issues as we move beyond Willowbrook and Hinsdale South High School.  In other words, it’s wonderful what those two groups have accomplished, but now what?

First and foremost, EtO should never be released anywhere near humans, and its use should be regulated much more strictly than it currently is.  Sterigenics closed its Willowbrook facilities, but has yet to concede the closure resulted from its pollution, claiming it was the “unstable legislative regulatory landscape ” of Illinois which led to its departure.  As of yet, the company remains adamant that its EtO release had no ill effects on those who lived and worked near them.  Sterigenics and various companies continue to release EtO in other communities throughout the U.S., and throughout the world.  Willowbrook is, after 34 years, safe from EtO pollution, but Georgia and New Mexico (to name two) are still battling industry efforts to release EtO, and Sterigenics alone has 49 facilities in 13 different countries. 

This cannot go on.  Those who lived, worked, and survived in Willowbrook can attest to the health risks EtO poses, and the industry argument that no other means to sterilize medical supplies exists is wrong. It might cost (initially) more to use other, safer methods to achieve similar results, but there are several alternatives to EtO for virtually all of its current uses.  The simplest solution, then, is that we stop all ethylene oxide usage, and I would argue, that is the best long-term solution.  As we transition to that outcome (as quickly as possible, with specific legislation and many, many inspections to ensure compliance with various ordinances…check that, strict ordinances…in place), we should at the very least ban EtO emissions in all population areas.  It is unclear if there is a “safe” level of exposure to what is classified as a carcinogen; the question then becomes why would we continue the unsuccessful experiment of releasing EtO in populated areas when we already know the damage exposure has caused in the past?  Why should people have to live near a source of breast cancer, lymphomas, and fertility/miscarriage problems?  The faster we stop using this toxic gas for industrial purposes, the better.

Second, we need to do a better in notifying people of health risks to which they were exposed due to where they lived or worked in the past.  I know that privacy is very important and an endangered concept in our society, but a central data base with a history of where we have lived and worked makes sense as we discover how more and more of the “wondrous” inventions humans created actually have a dark side which have been inflicting harm to other humans for a long time.  This resource is crucial especially since that harm is often undiscovered for many years after those affected have left an area where the actual cause/effect relationship took place.  If a data base like this had been in place in the case of Willowbrook’s Sterigenics plants, for example, it would have been possible to create a contact list of those who might have been impacted by EtO release and quickly let them know. 

As it is, thousands of people are probably unaware of what took place in Willowbrook; in our small South past employees notification project, for example, most of the people we reached were learning about their EtO exposure for the first time:  Once people leave an area, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to tie their future illnesses to their past living or working arrangements.  And to the best of my knowledge (limited, admittedly), there have been few if any efforts to contact past employees or residents about the dangers to which they were exposed by any of the businesses and organizations located even closer to the Willowbrook plants than Hinsdale South was.  No one here is accusing anyone of anything, but the Willowbrook Police Department, a Marriot hotel, a Target, a Denny’s, a Starbucks, and a host of other businesses, schools, and governmental agencies are all much closer to where the Sterigenics plants were than Hinsdale South High School was.  What, if any, efforts have been made to find and inform all the people who worked in and around these two toxic plants?  No matter how much publicity this issue garners, as our South Notification Project illustrated, most people do not have enough information to make the connections unless someone provides them with the facts.  In an information age, we still have many gaps in our ability to inform, unfortunately. 

From anticipating future health issues to participating in lawsuits to hold responsible parties accountable, this kind of knowledge is vital and should be readily available to everyone who may have been affected by these types of health issues.  But that is not currently the case.  If only there were a resource where addresses for every place we worked or lived was collected…but wait, there already is.  As anyone who helped to track down those who had worked at South over twenty years ago can tell you, all you need is a name and a past city/state of residence (and if a name is unusual enough, that alone is enough), and you can use the Internet to find just about anybody right now.  Using all the data we currently provide to Amazon—without a second thought in order to get moisturizer delivered to our doors in two days—instead so we can safeguard our health doesn’t seem like a huge sacrifice to me.

Even if we won’t allow that kind of Big Brother data collection (but please don’t kid yourself that you aren’t already willingly participating in exactly that, unless you emulate Ron Swanson), at the very least we should have a notification option through our local governmental agencies or employers.  When you move or leave a job, you should be able to leave contact information on file, should the need ever arise when it is in your interests to be contacted.  Under this less effective but more voluntary system, it would then become your responsibility to update that information with your various past addresses and/or places of employment over the years, any time you relocated or changed jobs.  This practice, which I’m guessing is at least partially in place with many organizations already, would be an additional chore on top of all the other chores you’d have when you move as well as another data entry/filing task for someone in the HR department; but it’s better than nothing.  A national data base is the best solution, in my opinion, but I do recognize the privacy issues which then arise, thus requiring tough security to make sure this kind of personal information is carefully guarded and regulated.  Between newly accepted health/pandemic needs for contact tracing, residence/employment tracing wouldn’t be that much of a stretch. 

It’s clear that achieving the needed reforms unleashed by the results of Sterigenics ignoring the EPA’s recommendation that EtO should not be released in a densely populated area is far from finished.  The progress we’ve made so far, however, is largely due to the efforts of Stop Sterigenics, a group which educated itself on the issues, ignored conventional wisdom, and took on powerful opposition forces in an epic David versus Goliath confrontation.  That David won this round needs to be celebrated and called to everyone’s attention.  Thank you so much, Stop Sterigenics, and congratulations again on DuPage County’s recognition of your selfless work on our behalf!  But as illustrated by the South past-employee Notification Project, David is going to need lots more volunteers to pick up their slingshots and sally forth against corporate Goliaths, foes armed with expensive legal teams and political influence.  Combatting multi-national corporations, governmental bureaucracy, and general indifference, Stop Sterigenics has shown us all the way forward, and it is up to all of us to help finish that work.

For a complete timeline and documentation on how the village of Willowbrook has kept track of the Sterigenics issues, see this link.  For more on improving public schools, you can check out my eBook, excerpts of which can read here.

Sterigenics: Battles Won—War Ongoing, Part 3

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this Sterigenics saga, we reviewed how several former employees of Hinsdale South High School—inspired and helped by Stop Sterigenics (the community group which was recently recognized for its good works)—came to begin a Notification Project so that other former employees might learn of the dangers they had been exposed to while working at South.  From 1984 to 2019, ethylene oxide (EtO a known carcinogen) had been released into the atmosphere by the Sterigenics corporation via two medical sterilization plants near the high school which led to many illnesses and deaths.  Neither the Hinsdale Township High School District 86 school board (which had hired the teachers to work in this polluted building) nor the teachers’ union (the Hinsdale High School Teachers Association or HHSTA, supposed guardian of teachers’ well-being) had been willing to do the job, despite the obvious responsibility they had to these past employees and repeated requests for them to do so.  Although some attention had been drawn to the issue via meetings, essays, an on-line petition, and an excellent report on CBS This Morning, the Notification Project members believed that to ensure as many former employees as possible found out about the harm which working in South may have caused, a personal contact needed to be made.   

This was a daunting task for a bunch of individuals without access to official records.  Hundreds of people who had worked at South since 1984, but most had scattered all over the state and country during the many years after they’d left South.  How could a list of who they all were even be generated, not to mention the logistics of finding and contacting them?  There were a few informal on-line groups, but there were also hundreds who had lost contact with the Hinsdale South community many years ago who might still be completely unaware that working at South had been a health risk.  With no road map to follow on how to get this done, the Notification Project improvised and created its own system.

Fortunately, for many years, the school had supplied everybody with an employee phone/address book near the beginning of each year.  We knew the information in the books was way out of date, but at least we could get the names of just about everybody who had worked in the building.  This was important since some “behind-the-scenes” people weren’t included in the other main source of names (South’s yearbooks) because they had been employed by various sub-contractors (like the cafeteria service and the night cleaning crew). Although most people had pitched the address books over the years, a few had saved at least some of them.  So the first task was to put out word that there was a need for these books, beginning with the 1984 edition.  And in a couple of weeks, most of them had been gathered in one place.  With them, it was possible to generate a master list of almost everybody who had worked at South over the 34-year span. 

After much squinting and cross-referencing over the extremely tiny type (at least it was to some aged eyes), the final tally of all those who had worked at South from 1984-2019 came out to roughly 1,000 people.  That included teachers, support staff, administrators, and others employed by sub-contractors. Then came organizing the overall task into more specific steps and compiling the on-line resources necessary to explain what had happened to those for whom this news might be a bolt out of the blue.  Most important was finding volunteers who would help with what still seemed an overwhelming task.

And that leads to one of the most rewarding aspects of this whole process:  How past employees of South came through to make the Notification Project work.  In the middle of a pandemic, these friends took the time to take on something others who had more responsibility to address had ignored.  It can’t be overstated how indebted I am to those who gave of themselves so generously to make sure everybody at risk knew what had happened and what their options going forward were.  We truly appreciate your selfless efforts Kathy, Nancy, Susan, Cheryl, Brett, Linda, Cherie, George, Mary, Maribeth, Bob, Rose, Carol, Marge, Jeanne, Mike, Anne, Kris, Barb, Sue, and Kerri (to name a few, with apologies to those my poor memory may have overlooked).  And then there were four who went even further above and beyond, devoting hours and hours to the project’s success and who merit their own special category of gratitude:  Peg, Judy, Candy, and Sharon made herculean efforts to get everyone notified and this project succeeded in large part because of them.  In our divisive, toilet-paper-hoarding times, it is truly inspiring that this group would come together motivated solely to do good for others.  “Thanks” doesn’t even begin to express the depth of appreciation I have for all that you did.

The notification portion then ensued with steady, pain-staking progress:  Organizing the missing people into smaller groupings, finding “Division Heads” who would assume responsibility for notifying specific categories of employees, creating a letter which explained what had happened and what recourse victims had, disbursing copies of that letter electronically, obtaining hundreds of copies of the letter to send via mail to those for whom we didn’t have a personal or digital contact, buying stamps and envelopes to mail those letters, using various on-line resources to find people for whom we only had a name and an old address, and then of course, making contact (or attempting to make contact at least twice) with 1,000 people.  We figured out who we were looking for, learned about how public records could be used to figure out where they were, and then set out to contact them.

It was a tedious, challenging project, but with the help of those wonderful people listed above, we were able to contact over 86% of those who had worked at South from 1984-2019.  For most of those we reached, the notification served as a heads up on what to watch for or “medical monitoring” (as we came to learn) after EtO exposure. But at least 20 of the people contacted had been negatively impacted by Sterigenics and were unaware of the source of their issues until hearing from the Notification Project.  Most of them are now members of the personal injury group of over 700 who have filed lawsuits against Sterigenics. 

It’s important for everyone to understand that this, like Stop Sterigenics, was a grassroots collection of concerned people who had little expertise in any of this, but cared enough to get involved.  Just as Stop Sterigenics tackled a tough problem, the Notification Project folks made the decision to take on a needed task no one else was willing to do and about which it would have been easy to rationalize as un-doable.  Both District 86 and the HHSTA had much greater access to resources and necessary records to notify those who had been a part of those organizations for decades, but simply would not, despite specifically being asked to do so.  (Yes, I know I’ve mentioned the school board and HHSTA’s irresponsible lack of action before, but I’ve had a difficult time accepting that these bodies—both of which I had been a part for 25 years—could treat past employees with such callous indifference.)

Regardless of those organizations’ failings, the Notification Program was a success, and many more past South employees learned the truth than would have otherwise.  So, similar to (if not on the scale of) the positive impact of Stop Sterigenics, those wonderful souls listed above made a difference.  However, after the figurative pats on the back for those two wins have been handed out, much still needs to be done when it comes to EtO release in populated areas for these happy endings to ring out even more resoundingly.  In our final installment, we’ll review that “To-Do” list.

For a complete timeline and documentation on how the village of Willowbrook has kept track of the Sterigenics issues, see this link.  For more on improving public schools, you can check out my eBook, excerpts of which can be read here.

Sterigenics: Battles Won—War Ongoing, Part 2

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Last time, we reviewed the situation which created the need for former employees of Hinsdale South High School (among thousands of others) to be informed of the dangers to which they had been exposed beginning in 1984 and lasting until September 2019, over thirty-four years later:  Medical instrument sterilization plants located in Willowbrook, less than a mile from South, had been releasing a carcinogenic gas, ethylene oxide (EtO), into the atmosphere.  Sterigenics, the corporation which owned the plants and leased the space in Willowbrook, had been warned of the possible health risks before the plants opened, but proceeded anyway.  Studies had proved the warnings prescient as the Willowbrook area became a hot spot for breast cancer and lymphomas (blood cancers), with an increase in premature births and miscarriages as well—all negative outcomes associated with EtO exposure.  Led by a community organization named Stop Sterigenics, local residents and government officials got the Willowbrook plants permanently closed, eliminating the immediate threat.  But many of those who had been exposed, especially those who worked near the plants but had left the area years before, were unaware of what had happened, how their health might be at risk, or that legal recourse against Sterigenics was ongoing and available.

As a pair of retired Hinsdale South teachers who had been affected by EtO, my wife (at South from 1982-2002) and I (1987-2012) joined an effort to get past employees of South notified about what had happened.  All teachers at South had been at least vaguely aware of the unusual incidence of breast cancer which had appeared consistently throughout the building over the years, but with many retired staff members having relocated, their learning about Sterigenics’s culpability in their health issues would depend entirely on how well they kept up with local Willowbrook issues.  That is, of course, unless someone reached out to provide them with the pertinent information.

It seemed obvious to us that the school district would want to make sure its past employees knew of what had transpired since District 86 had provided and maintained the buildings in which the EtO exposure had taken place.  Obviously, no one associated with District 86 had known what had been going on until 2018 when the EPA study was released, but given that the district now knew what working in its buildings had done to its past employees, we assumed current district officials would want to do the right thing by letting everybody know what had happened.  So a campaign to lobby the school board to instruct its administrators to notify past employees of their EtO exposure began in the summer and fall of 2019:  Emails, personal contacts, and presentations at school board meetings (at 07.15 of this video, for example) ensued. 

By late fall, it became apparent just how far the school board would go:  A page on the district’s website gave some background as well as providing a sign-up sheet for “regular” updates (as of March 2021, not a single update has actually been sent—I signed up immediately after the site came online and have yet to get anything).  Unfortunately, you can’t see what’s on a web page unless you know to seek it out, so it offered little help in informing relocated past employees about their risks.  Additionally, after continued gentle pressure, the district sent a letter to past employees who were members of two honorary District 86 groups:  teachers who had worked in district for 25 years or more and support-staff members who had worked at least 15 years in the building.  By our calculations, this “notification” (which, to this retired English teacher, was both lacking in needed detail and confusing in its message), reached at best, 10-15% of the total of past employees impacted by Sterigenics.  The response was inadequate, to say the least.

So, we then contacted the employees’ union to which virtually every retired teacher had once belonged, the Hinsdale High School Teachers Association (HHSTA).  Keep in mind that some of us had served in HHSTA leadership positions for much of our teaching careers:  I, for example, had been vice president, newsletter editor, contract negotiator (with two stints as chief spokesperson for the teachers), grievance chair, and building/local president during my 25 years at South.  In other words, many retired teachers had worked diligently to support the organization which had represented teacher interests over the years, helping to achieve many of the benefits and positive working conditions which current teachers now enjoy.  But, after a week of back and forth, the HHSTA decided it would not allow me to speak at any of its regular meetings, that it would not be “appropriate.”  That was the only explanation I have ever received:  “not appropriate.”  I can only speculate as to why it wouldn’t have been appropriate for me to explain to the HHSTA leadership about our efforts to get past HHSTA members (among others) notified of a significant health risk and to seek HHSTA support for those actions.  Since speculations are of little use here, I can only state the facts:  The HHSTA would not let me speak at its meetings about Sterigenics and EtO.  

Without a doubt, it is disappointing to have the organization to which so many retired teachers devoted significant time and effort during their careers ignore the health threats those same past members faced.  I have attended at least five memorial services in the last ten years for colleagues who died much too soon, from illnesses which can be traced to working at Hinsdale South and Sterigenics, to say nothing of all the suffering illnesses caused by EtO exposure have inflicted on my family, friends, and colleagues.  For the organization entrusted with advocating for and guarding the health and rights of its members to refuse to do anything to help notify past members of a potentially lethal risk is shocking and reprehensible to me.  But that’s what happened; the HHSTA leadership would not allow a past president come to speak at one of its meetings.  Rather than dwell on this moral failing and attack those responsible for this gross negligence and abdication of responsibility, I can only state that it saddens me that the HHSTA would turn its back on those who had labored on its behalf over the years.

So, with minimal district support and absolutely nothing from the employee union tasked with protecting its members, we moved on to more public pressure.  Essays were posted and meetings were attended, but those didn’t have much, if any, effect.  One bright spot during this discouraging time was a Stop Sterigenics founder and ex-student of mine, Urszula Tanouye, who helped keep the story in the news and launched an on-line petition asking the school board to finish its notification responsibilities which garnered over 800 signatures.  I will be forever indebted to Urszula for all she did for us.  (On a completely unrelated note, Ms. Tanouye is currently running to be on a local school board.  It’s not a school district where I live, but she would be a great board member, in my humble estimation.)  But nothing we did moved the school board or the HHSTA.  Privately, some would concede that our case was just and provide moral support, off the record, of course; but time was passing by (late November, 2019) and we still hadn’t been able to motivate those with the most direct responsibility to act in the interests of those who had spent decades working at South.

Just before New Year’s, our notification campaign got a huge lift: CBS This Morning did an amazing report about Sterigenics, featuring five past employees of District 86 (who had learned of the tie between their illnesses and EtO only recently).  These colleagues (Peg, Marge, Rose, Jeanne, and Carol) presented a devastating case against Sterigenics, and CBS did a phenomenal job narrating the story.  You could not ask for a better summation of exactly what the problem is and the need for more publicity/notification for those potentially affected.  (Then, for good measure, Jeanne and Carol presided over a press conference the day after the story broke, again clearly, calmly, and brilliantly laying out just what had happened for all to hear.)  I highly recommend that you check out the five-minute CBS piece.  Thank you CBS and reporter Anna Werner, but especially Peg, Jeanne, Marge, Carol, and Rose—all of whom shared personal details about their health in order to help others.

There could be little doubt that, after all this publicity, that the word had gotten out, at least somewhat.  But we knew it wasn’t enough, that hundreds of our past colleagues might never hear of their risks if we left it here.  Time was passing fast, and this flu-virus thing we’d been hearing about since January was starting to shut down the world.  Since the school district and teachers’ union had failed in their responsibilities to past employees and we knew many of our colleagues and friends had not learned about the threat to their health through our publicity efforts, in late February, this group of retired teachers and support staff members came to the decision that nothing further would get done unless they did the job themselves.  And so the Hinsdale South Past-Employee Notification Project began. That story comes next.

For a complete timeline and documentation on how the village of Willowbrook has kept track of the Sterigenics issues, see this link.  For more on improving public schools, you can check out my eBook, excerpts of which can be read here.

Sterigenics: Battles Won—War Ongoing, Part 1

On February 23 at a DuPage County Board meeting,  the community group Stop Sterigenics was recognized with a proclamation honoring the organization’s service to county residents.  Stop Sterigenics has made vital contributions both to local residents as well as people throughout the country, and continues to make its influence felt.  So now feels like a good time to remind everyone of Stop Sterigenics’s historic impact.  We also can use this much-deserved acknowledgement to remind ourselves that there is still much we all need to do to honor and advance the work Stop Sterigenics has begun, using the example of an offshoot of Stop Sterigenics’s success which also has more than just local applications.

For those of you who don’t know the history:  In a letter dated July 6, 1984 (a copy of the original can be seen here), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warned Griffith Laboratories that its planned medical-instrument sterilizing plant in Willowbrook, Illinois, which would release ethylene oxide gas into the environment, posed health risks to the surrounding communities.  The company went ahead and opened anyway.  Over thirty-four years later on February 18, 2019, Griffith Labs—now a multi-national, multi-billion-dollar conglomerate whose corporate headquarters is in Oakbrook and is named Sterigenics—was forced to close those Willowbrook plants as health studies showed significant increases in cancer (especially breast cancer and lymphomas), miscarriages, and premature births for those who lived and worked in proximity to the plants.

My wife and I were impacted by the entire range of EtO issues, as you can read about here.  We did not live near the plants, but had spent over two decades each teaching at Hinsdale South High School, less than a mile from the pollution’s source, and been subjected to EtO for hours every day when we went to work.  In an irony only a retired literature teacher could appreciate, I had gone to school early almost every day in order to workout in the exercise area in South’s basement; EtO is heavier than air and tends to accumulate in low areas, so I probably got an extra heavy dose every day I thought I was doing something good for my health.  To add to this irony lesson, my wife was a physical education/health teacher, and was often outside, the better to encourage fitness, thus making her more vulnerable to the air-borne gas.  Fortunately, we both have coped with our illnesses (her breast cancer was treated in 2002-03 and my chronic lymphocytic leukemia was diagnosed in 2019) relatively well.  But just as we were dealing with the repercussions of my diagnosis, we learned that both our conditions as well as the fertility/birth problems we’d endured over the years had a common source—Sterigenics.  Fortunately, by the time we had pieced together what had occurred, a grass-roots community movement was already doing battle on everyone’s behalf—Stop Sterigenics.

When a comprehensive health report became available in 2018 which showed just how much illness could be related to Sterigenics emissions, community members organized to form what became Stop Sterigenics.  These heroes lobbied local, state, and national government agencies to eliminate the health risks of the two Sterigenics plants in Willowbrook, succeeding in the temporary closing referenced above, which became permanent in September 2019, when Sterigenics fled Willowbrook, citing an “unstable legislative regulatory landscape ” as the reason for the permanent closure, when anyone with the slightest knowledge of what happened knew the truth:  Thanks to Stop Sterigenics, a deadly pollution source was cast out of the area, with its corporate sponsor slinking away, leaving hundreds of personal injury lawsuits in its wake.  We need look no further than Sterigenics’ own actions to understand the company was both negligent and willful in its pollution.  The shut-down in Willowbrook, however, can only be viewed as single victory in a long war which will continue for many years.  Sterigenics has so far not admitted to any wrong-doing nor conceded that its release of EtO caused harm to those who lived and worked nearby.  And as lawsuits wend their way through the courts, there are still many places where EtO is still released in the US, to say nothing of plans for more throughout the world.  Ethylene oxide continues to be a problem, and has only worsened recently.

But Stop Sterigenics did succeed in Willowbrook and has helped to spread word of the dangers these plants still pose to unsuspecting millions.  It is a source of pride to this retired teacher that many graduates of Hinsdale South High School have been critical in both the formation and the work of Stop Sterigenics.  Not only have these stalwarts ended the threat to the Willowbrook area, but they have committed to ridding the world of this dangerous pollutant.  This steady progress has been interrupted due to the pandemic, however, as medical sterilization plants have sought exemptions from stricter regulations in order to provide personal protection equipment (PPE) during the covid crisis.  So now, as we finally start to see some progress in dealing with the five-alarm emergency that has been the pandemic (and for which we even now have to maintain strict vigilance and keep wearing masks, dammit!), we should recognize that we still have much to do when it comes to the poison Sterigenics and other companies are still spewing into our air, and stay resolute in our resolve to deal with the repercussions of this many-decades-long degradation of our environment and health. 

One issue which has been of particular interest to me can also offer us an example of the challenges still present despite the successes associated with shutting down Sterigenics, Willowbrook.  With the plants now defunct and with no chance of their ever returning (to Willowbrook only, sorry to say), many might see this localized problem as solved, put to bed, done.  Unfortunately, when a problem which has been festering for decades finally comes to light, making sure that everyone who may have been impacted by that problem knows what happened becomes a problem for which we don’t currently have many good solutions.  How do we notify all the people exposed to the damaging EtO who no longer live in the area?  Might there be families who lost a loved one due to an illness years ago caused by Sterigenics’s emissions, who have no idea the illness was caused by EtO or that they have legal rights to hold Sterigenics to account?  Just because Sterigenics is no longer spewing its toxins in Willowbrook doesn’t mean that there aren’t still people totally ignorant of the fact that their breast cancer, lymphoma, and/or miscarriage can be traced back to the EtO put into the air where they used to live or work.

So in our next installment, we’ll review the lessons learned from on one small piece of the notification problem, which will better illustrate just what I’m talking about.  Alarmed by the damage Sterigenics had inflicted and inspired by Stop Sterigenics, a group of past Hinsdale South employees began actions to ensure all those who’d worked there over the years had the facts about what had happened.  Both infuriating and heartening, this story has much to teach us. For a complete timeline and documentation on how the village of Willowbrook has kept track of the Sterigenics issues, see this link.  For more on improving public schools, you can check out my eBook, excerpts of which can read here.

My 2020 Soundtrack

As we usher in the new year with the hope it won’t be as bad as 2020, it’s hard to process the last 365 days, short of self-administered amnesia.  How do we come to grips with that which was 2020?  For me, the go-to way of assimilating events is to associate them with music, to put together a soundtrack which helps me to cope.  Usually, an entire year wouldn’t generate this need, but as we all know, 2020 was anything but a typical year.  The only requirement I have for my song choices is that they have some combination of up tempo, complexity, and melody thus making them suitable to use for workouts, household chores, walking the dog, or any other relatively monotonous but useful/necessary task.  With that preface and for what it’s worth (Buffalo Springfield, clearly a song which worked very well as a summation of the late ‘60s, if you’re old enough to remember that time), here’s my annotated soundtrack for 2020.

Negativity was the hallmark of the year; just about everything that happened was bad:  Political discourse, the environment, race relations, pandemics, and human interaction (lack thereof) were just a few of the issues which skewed poorly this year.  In terms of an overall theme song for the year, then, you can’t encapsulate 2020 much better than Filter’s “The Only Way Is the Wrong Way”.  No matter what we did, nothing seemed to work out.  The song’s plaintive vocals and minor key relentlessly crush you, but it’s hard to stop listening, just as 2020 kept the horror coming, month after month in ever-more compelling, if depressing ways. 

The most poignant moment of the year for me was my daughter’s college graduation in May.  The live ceremony was cancelled, depriving the ’20 graduates of that boring, pain of a rite which somehow metamorphizes into a wonderful life event as we age; my daughter and her classmates didn’t get the opportunity for that memory.  Will they remember what did occur in the same wistful way most of us recall that milestone date?  My wife and I did travel to Augustana to be with her on the “big” day, one normally filled with hope, idealism, and interminable speeches.  She dutifully put on her cap and gown; while we sat in her college-town house (small, with most of the furniture already moved out, leaving only a slight mildew aroma), watched the graduates’ names scroll by on her small TV screen, cheered when we saw hers, and then wandered around the mostly empty campus to photograph her spraying a bottle of Champaign in front of one the college’s halls.  We did our best to be jovial and celebratory, but we couldn’t escape the somber aura which coated everything.  The most we could do was to keep our head above water (Men without Hats).  My younger daughter (in a different college) has made it through the first semester of her sophomore year with the same mix of hope and dread.  We all believe that schooling will be better in 2021, but we also understand how much we’ve lost.

2020 wore everybody down in its necessary social distancing.  From Netflix to sourdough bread, we were stuck inside and alone with much more down time than we ever had before.  Relationships frayed and depression soared without our usual diversions, or even being able to hang out with anyone in a public place.  That wonderful, cozy nest we had created as our home slowly deteriorated to the point where we wanted to be anywhere else but here (Simple Plan).  No matter how much each individual tried to act as if “It’s gliding for me” (Plastic Bertrand’s “Ca Plane pour Moi”), even in French, such manic pretense came across as inane gibberish.  And weirdest of all, as you stared at the same four walls day after day, eventually your own home became somewhere strange (Mirrors).

And the pandemic played on—my own petty annoyances with how the year went pale to less than nothing when compared to the brutal time health care professionals had.  How many times did they tell us to wear masks, socially distance, wash our hands, and stay away from any events with significant numbers of people; only to have to exhaust themselves while risking their lives again and again to deal with the foolish choices made by way too many Americans.  Please, do as they say because we cannot keep expecting to get blood from a stone (Hooters).

Politicians in general and our orange dictator wannabe specifically took up way too much air space and wasted way too many opportunities.  There seems to be little question that the faux-Mussolini doughboy could easily be held responsible for tens of thousands of deaths since March, from down-playing the covid threat to numerous super-spreader events at his rallies and the White House.  He managed to politicize every aspect of pandemic behavior, leading to millions putting themselves at risk because he advocated “opening” states up, hyped spurious medical cures, spurned mask use, and droned on endlessly about how we were turning the corner—which still hasn’t happened.  For all that and more, the only way I can avoid hurling things at the TV any time he comes on is to remember Lily Allen’s immortal song,  “F**k You,” here in an extended remix version, making the chorus even bouncier.  (And keep in mind that Lily uses no asteriks when she’s singing that chorus over and over.)

Race relations?  Well, at least we white people momentarily got off our asses to…what, walk around earnestly?  All sincere intentions and resolute affirmations aside, little has or will be achieved while all the underlying circumstances which have created this chasm between the haves and the have nots (from public education equity to career options to increasing minimum wages to food/pollution/health dead zones to economic opportunities to voter suppression laws to…) remain unchanged.  Will our society do anything, make anything better?  Until we do, I can only imagine how bad things are if you are a young, poor, black man in our society.  Yeah, pretty much all I’d want to say to everybody is, “Sa-My-D!”  (Hedegaard & Matt Hawk).

And on and on the list goes:  From floods to wild fires to temperature extremes to tornados, “Hello Hurricane!” (Switchfoot) is about all we’ve come up with as a way to deal with environmental degradation, as we watch our biodiversity fade to grey (Visage).  Societal divisions continue to be a road to nowhere (Talking Heads), with algorithms and AI telling us every day that we’re only just as happy as everyone else seems to think we are (Jimmy Eat World, “The World You Love”).  It’s hard to be optimistic about our future; everything’s pretty dim (Dada) and so far the best-sounding escape plan is that we could run (Beth Ditto).

Odds are (Barenaked Ladies), though, that most of us will have a better 2021, at least by comparison.  Throughout 2021 and for the foreseeable future, we’ll have a nice man as our president who has empathy out the wazoo.  Yes, it’s hard to believe this elderly guy who’s been around forever when he tells us of a better future and promises, “I’ll take you there” (Frankie Knuckles & Jamie Principle), but it sure sounds good to me.  Here’s to a 2021 which doesn’t seem like it’s the end of the world as we know it (R.E.M.), but lets us believe that 2020’s end is a new start (Marsheaux), and helps us please escort the orange plague off our escalator of life (Robert Hazard).  But no matter how we deal with our brief time on this fragile planet, never forget that the tune ends too soon for us all (“Life’s a Long Song,” Jethro Tull). 

My entire 2020 Soundtrack can be accessed starting here.  And if you’d like to read my ideas on improving public education based on my teaching career, you can access excerpts of my e-book, here.  Happy New Year!

Prioritize Teachers

Every day scientists strain to learn more about how this horrible virus operates, which of course, leads to an evolution in our understanding of what risks we frail humans face.  One recent revelation (at least tentatively) is that public education, especially elementary schools, pose much less risk to children than we originally thought.  Kids catch the virus less readily, have fewer extreme reactions, and don’t pass it on to other people to the degree adults do.  Of course there are many exceptions, unfortunately, but compared to other populations, children under 10 seem okay with in-person school, certainly better than adults do with restaurants, bars, or gyms.  The problem, however, is that the other school population necessary for education to work—teachers and support staff—are at much greater risk for serious corona-virus effects when in-person school takes place.  Because of this difference and how important it is to get public education up and running again, teachers should be a top priority to receive vaccines as they become ready.

No one would argue that health workers and elderly retirement community members should be the first to get vaccinated, but once those populations have received their doses, educational staffs should be given serious consideration and deference (along with other essential workers like delivery people, sanitation personnel, grocery store employees, and anyone who performs a public service which benefits our communities).  So far, at least from what I’ve been able to discern, few outside of teachers themselves have been saying much about teachers as a top priority.  Yet, there are significant reasons to support this position.

First and foremost, our kids are falling behind in their education.  Very little matters more to our society’s functioning than its citizens having a first-rate education.  The proud history of America has proven the positive impacts of a literate populace.  From productivity, political, social, fiscal, and civics points of view; we all benefit from the fruits of our public education trees.  So far, though, on-line education has not been able to come even close to achieving what in-person school can do.  From academic achievement to social adjustment, kids are suffering from not being able to go to school, with under-privileged children disproportionately feeling the pain.  And even after we are able to reopen schools normally during the next year (we hope), the deficit the past year will have caused could harm our society for many years.  I don’t know what the depressing formula for the cumulative effect of all those days missed will be, but there can be little doubt that our recovery will take longer for each and every day we can’t send out kids to school.

There’s also the economic impact of not being able to entrust children to public schools for a significant portion of every work day.  With schools fully opened, parents would be able to return to work more easily.  One of the key negative impacts of the pandemic has been on working mothers, many of whom have had to drop out of the work force in order to take care of their kids.  Yes, many men have also been affected, but the percentage of dads leaving the work force is much less compared to moms—men are still out-earning women in general, and our society still sees females as the nurturers and males as the hunter/gatherers.  Regardless of whose employment opportunities have been more hurt by not having schools open five days a week, parents would be freer to return to paying jobs if they didn’t have to wonder whether or not their children’s schools would be in-person or remote.

Lastly, we need to end the battle between teachers and the communities they serve as both students and parents push harder and harder for the return of in-person school (see this article, this one, this one, and this one for a sampling of protests throughout the country).  Everybody understands that learning is declining, to say nothing of the lost extra-curricular opportunities and economic burdens placed on parents.  But coronavirus has killed over 300,000 already, with additional thousands who seem destined to die each day for the next several months.  Teachers (of whom I was one for 33 years until retirement in 2012; so no, I wouldn’t be one of those targeted to get the vaccine early, I’m afraid) have not only had the impossible task of adapting everything they’d done in the classroom for years to video classes in a matter of days, but they are now getting heat for being reluctant to return to their classrooms despite the health risks.  Just because the students are not as imperiled by the virus as adults doesn’t mean that teachers won’t die if they are forced back to school without adequate protection.

That’s not to denigrate those other groups lining up with legitimate reasons for being vaccine priorities:  All those previously referenced folks and any other of a myriad of those who cannot do their jobs remotely should receive their shots as soon as possible, long before all those workers who have been inconvenienced by having to work at home, but have adapted modestly well to staying away from their offices.  But when analyzing who is essential and needs to be vaccinated as soon as possible, we have to understand that even though remote school is taking place, its quality has been significantly lacking in many ways and that its impact on working families has been devastating.  Teachers and other educational support staff can’t be overlooked as we struggle to prioritize those most important to getting our society functioning again when we are figuring out the sequence for rationed vaccines.  Vaccinating teachers will provide a huge societal benefit and enable us to get educators back in their classrooms as soon as we can.

For more on how public schools can be improved, you can check out my e-book, excerpts of which can be seen here.

Coronavirus, In-Person School, and Teacher Unions

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Let’s get the goals out of the way right up front:  1. Everybody wants public schools to be open to everyone for regular school hours as soon as possible; and 2. Nobody wants going to school to be unsafe for anyone.  Okay?   Good.

Making those objectives a reality won’t be easy given how fragmented the various approaches, plans, and procedures now floating around thousands of school districts throughout the country are; you can find published plans for districts in the same geographic area that bear little resemblance to each other.  Many have yet to get specific about the ways they will adjust their classrooms to accommodate needed distancing, how regular testing with immediate results will be accomplished, or the system they will use which will provide for a continuum of schedules and practices varying as conditions change and we understand better how this virus behaves.  Every district should spell out just what the best ways are to prevent infection, to root out any who are infected, and to protect everybody from infecting anybody else in concrete, replicable terms.  Plus, don’t forget that all these procedures might have to be modified as we learn more.  The obstacle to achieving this so far, of course, is the complete failure of the Trump administration to do its job, which means we must find others to take on the responsibility of leading in our time of crisis.

Back in the day (and let us all hope, beginning again in the aftermath of the November 3rd presidential election), we could count on all the facts and procedures necessary for situations like this to be provided in excruciating detail from the federal government:  The CDC would lead, with an alphabet soup of other bureaucratic agencies supporting and publicizing best scientific practices, headed up by our propagandist-in-chief, the president.  But with 64% of America distrusting anything our Cheeto-dusted Pinocchio dishes up—You mean we shouldn’t inject ourselves with bleach?—it’s become obvious that we need others to step forward to show how to navigate this pandemic.  No, as we saw recently, the Education Secretary, Betsy SoLost, hasn’t a clue either.

Many governors have tried to lead, but fifty different strategies are hardly an organized way to go, and that’s leaving out how politics has become a factor as evidenced by Georgia’s governor suing the mayor of Atlanta over masking.  And as we all recall from our own educations, having the states cooperate on this particular group project will mirror how all those groups we endured in school ended up—a couple of nerdy, motivated states will do the majority of the work, while slacker states try to ride in on their coattails, hefting very little of the drudgery of things like social distancing and masking.  The problem with this method when you’ve been assigned coronavirus as your project is that unless each and every participant pulls his/her weight, those now-heavily-infected goof-off group members (Can you say, “Florida”?) will proceed to infect all the over-achieving, low-rate states as interstate travel continues.

Yeah, it’s looking pretty grim as we get closer to schools’ first days, with the Idiot-in-Chief insisting that he’ll withhold funding from any district that doesn’t open with the traditional schedule in place, with future field trips to the hospital as an exciting (if your kids survive) diversion.  And just when you thought it couldn’t get any more confusing, the CDC releases “revised” guidelines for opening schools, which are much more biased in favor of going ahead with in-person contact, unlike its previous iteration which had earned the ire of that clown in the Oval Office for being “too tough.”  Because of all this chaos and uncertainty, how to go about something as complicated as trying to have in-person class has become (through their refusal to accept responsibility and the incompetence of those who should be leading) an individual decision each school district has to figure out on its own.

As a result of that and since they have as much at stake as anyone else caught up in this mess, teachers need to assert themselves into this discussion forcefully as equal partners in how this ultimately gets resolved.  If teachers are not convinced returning to in-person school is safe, schools should not open with in-person classes.  Fortunately for many teachers, the methodology for making this all happen is already in place:  Teacher Unions.

Naturally, many—especially school administrators and boards—will resist this idea, but I don’t believe they really have a choice, so let’s get to the legal basis for my proposal first:  Based on various statutes in place throughout the country, teacher unions can influence how this school year proceeds because of collective bargaining laws enacted by individual states which regulate how public employees (primarily firefighters, police officers, and teachers) interact with their governmental bosses.  In Illinois, for example (with which I am most familiar since it’s the state in which my teaching career took place), we have the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act (5 ILCS 315/) which in the second paragraph of its second section states its purpose, which is to “regulate labor relations between public employers and employees, including the designation of employee representatives, negotiation of wages, hours and other conditions of employment, and resolution of disputes arising under collective bargaining agreements.”

You should take note of that vague but vital phrase right in the middle of all that verbiage on the things that employees have the right to negotiate: “other conditions of employment.”  This catchall means that anything which has an impact on working conditions is the subject of bargaining and inclusion in a mutually agreed upon contract between the teachers (as typically represented by their union) and the community’s representatives (the school board).  And as we have witnessed, coronavirus has had a huge impact on teachers’ working conditions.  In March, there was no time for teacher unions to insist that the radical changes in working conditions be negotiated as public schools had to close down rapidly due to the public health emergency.  We’ve been aware of the problems opening schools this fall presented for several months, however, so one would hope all affected parties would be better prepared this time.  Now is the time for teachers to file a demand to bargain to negotiate contractual language on methodology and criteria to be used in order to ensure safety for the 2020-21 school year, if they haven’t already done so.

It will seem crazy to some that a local teacher union might be able to deal with this crisis better than our governmental agencies, but keep in mind that local unions do have broader affiliations in most cases; and you get to the national level in two quick steps.  I know this because I was active at all levels in my union, the Hinsdale High School Teachers Association (HHSTA), during my 25 years at Hinsdale South High School (I retired in 2012 after 33 years teaching).  The HHSTA is affiliated with the Illinois Education Association (IEA) which is the state branch of the US-wide National Education Association (NEA).  The other major teacher union is the American Federation of Teachers with its Illinois chapter, the IFT, which is affiliated with Chicago public schools, for example.  So when the national organizations put out notices, they move rapidly to thousands of classroom teachers, who can put that information to good use in making sure we have the same standard of safety everywhere.  While I have always been insistent on schools and teachers being treated as unique entities, when it comes to safety measures, we all want to be able to know that the seat belt in the car from Maine works exactly the same as the one you might use in Oregon.  All schools should be equally and fully protected from becoming coronavirus vectors since this damn bug is completely egalitarian in its willingness to infect anyone.  To defeat it, we have to present a unified front.

Following that demand to bargain and as negotiations proceeded, local unions would look to their state organizations for assistance on the best methodology and relevant criteria which could be included in the new agreement.  State unions, the IEA in the HHSTA’s case, would then seek guidelines from the national organization; ultimately, the NEA could have a significant effect on how schools open this fall in many local districts.

Naturally, with the right to insist the district negotiate pandemic protocols comes the responsibility to be as safe as possible; insisting that teachers have an equal say in which health procedures will be used will require that local and national teacher leaders take the initiative and accept a measure of responsibility for the safety of the community’s children.  Um, yeah, that does kind of sound like how teachers operate every day for the entirety of their careers, so this isn’t really all that much of a stretch for teachers—it’s what they do.

Plus, let’s not overlook the primary motive for the teacher unions:  Teachers!  Suddenly, having a bunch of teenagers in five different groups of 25 per class makes you a high-risk, front-line worker.  If anything, given some of the ventilation systems in place in many of our schools, teachers’ risks could be many-multiples higher than most workers for catching the virus.  Yes, nurses are much more at risk and brave as hell, but at least they have been trained about this stuff and have access (um, most of the time?) to supplies of safe-guarding equipment.  Trust me, many of those in front of your kids each day, especially in high schools, have only the most rudimentary knowledge and training on health issues—my English background didn’t really contain much on any pandemics, save the Black Plague’s significance in Romeo and Juliet.

But safe practices could be clearly spelled out through directives from the national organizations who would be compelled to seek out the best science available—leading us right back to the typical governmental sources, except, the unions would be able to use only the scientists’ work, without its having to be run through the corrupting filter of politics.  This whole thing is a convoluted process, I will readily admit, to expect local teacher union leaders to demand bargaining sessions to enact the procedures which should already be in place and which have been generated by federal government agencies, but that twisted route to safety is clearly better than what’s currently going on.

Of course, this approach is far from fail-safe.  For starters, it requires local unions to step up and insist on being included in the task of figuring out what to do, which some may be reluctant to do. Unfortunately, I have a recent personal experience with the problems of a teacher union ignoring a risk to its (past) members:  Last November, I tried to persuade the Hinsdale Township High School District 86  board to alert past employees of an environmental health hazard which has negatively impacted many teachers who worked at Hinsdale South (including my wife and me) due to air pollution which filled Hinsdale South for over 30 years from two Sterigenics plants in Willowbrook.  When I approached the union I had served in many capacities over my teaching career (the HHSTA), seeking their support for a district-wide effort to make sure all past employees of South got notified of their health risks, South HHSTA leaders wouldn’t even let me come to their meeting to discuss the issue, stating it would not be “appropriate” for me to attend their “sanctioned” meeting to lobby the union for help in notifying past union members of something which had already taken the lives of several South teachers.  Such indifference and dereliction of duty in the corona age would certainly undermine making schools safe for anyone—yes, we need to mention again that leadership on this should have come from our federal government, the group most responsible for the mess we’re in.  To help weak locals, the national unions would need to provide clear, straightforward help with their push for participation in decisions which will impact teachers’ health.

This method would also be problematic in states without any collective bargaining laws, but we could hope that the once some standard procedures had been hammered out, every district would leap on board.  That would be more likely once it became clear that national groups were articulating state-of-the-art advice to keep everybody well.

Nor am I trying to ignore/minimize all the work various groups have done to create detailed re-opening plans.  Downers Grove District #99  (Downers South and North High Schools), for one, has published what appears to be a carefully thought out, reasonable plan.  But for every district like that, you will find others with much less detailed plans, which require significant fleshing out in a very short time frame (like this one, which was shared on July 15 from Center Cass #66).  Regardless of how good current plans are, however, in most of them, final decisions are left to school officials.  Even though teachers have participated in creating these plans (many of them union leaders), the ultimate authority to make final decisions rests with school boards and administrators.  In collective bargaining lingo, when your bosses have total say so over your working life, that’s known as being “at will,” not a comfortable place for teachers to be, especially when poor decisions could cost them their lives.

Teachers have a different set of priorities and a huge stake in those decisions, so they should have the power to impact them directly.  Until significant improvements in our ability to treat people infected with COVID-19 and an effective vaccine are available, working in large buildings with hundreds of people puts your health/life at much greater risk than if you did comparable activities remotely.  I don’t know about you, but under those conditions, I would expect to be able to have a say in how to proceed.  In more concrete terms, the details of how and to what degree schools will open should be reduced to an agreement between school boards and teacher unions which both groups then vote to accept or reject.  (And these agreements should all contain, for example, language which would allow teachers in high-risk categories to have totally remote assignments or to opt-out of teaching this school year with no loss of seniority rights, to give one example of how a union negotiator might look out after their members differently from district administrators.)   At the very least, teachers should be able to vote on the plans which have already been created in their district, with the written version (upon approval) becoming a part of the negotiated contract, subject to the grievance procedure (which culminates in binding arbitration when disputes reach impasse) every collective bargaining agreement is required to have.  Without unions sharing in the responsibility for monitoring conditions and insisting on districts strictly following agreed upon standards for in-person classes, it is not difficult to imagine a district’s bending to pressure from distraught, overworked parents to keep schools open, despite conditions being only a “little” worse.  And that kind of lapse or vacillation could lead to deaths—we need a plan which has multiple parties scrutinizing daily data to guarantee no possibility of erring on the side of convenience rather than safety.

Teacher union resistance to in-person schooling is building with several state organizations speaking out about how inadequate some of the back-to-school plans are. In Pennsylvania, New York City, Florida, and Wisconsin (to name a few), teacher unions have begun to agitate or file lawsuits to prevent school districts from recklessly opening before science would dictate.  While I do support this legal confrontation as in the best interests of teachers, I’ve always felt that a more cooperative approach serves everyone better; collective bargaining—while certainly not easy or a panacea for every situation—offers a more reasoned approach, to say nothing about promoting a more unified front on standardizing procedures which protect our communities.

Obviously, teacher unions trying to save public education from stupid politicians is not the best approach to a deadly pandemic, but the alternatives right now are all fraught with self-serving posturing and vague, unscientific assurances.  Unions could ensure that the health conditions locally are the driving force behind any school re-opening plan.  Unions could demand comprehensive testing to keep schools virus free.  Unions could make sure objective criteria, like focusing on the number of cases and positivity rates, would be the basis for all decisions.  And ultimately, unions could—in protecting teachers—protect our kids.  Our current situation is rife with danger, clearly, but the combination of national leadership which has direct access to local stakeholders that unions can provide seems like the best mix available to confront it, patchwork as it may be.

A look at where we are in late July, however—with significant numbers of newly infected week after week, hospitalizations and deaths increasing, shortages of supplies, delays in testing, and a paucity of effective treatments—makes it clear that schools should not be reopening with any in-person contact for at least a few months.  Local unions should use that time to require that the conditions under which union member teachers go back to classrooms with kids are safe, period.  That will necessitate their filing demands to bargain (the aforementioned Illinois Federation of Teachers is advising locals to do just that in a July 20 press release); the alternative of teachers getting sick because of union inaction (to say nothing of students and every other adult working in our schools) is unacceptable, or at least it should be.  Teachers are dedicated to their mission of educating young people, but they shouldn’t have to risk death in order to fulfill it.

For more on how public schools can be improved, you can check out my e-book, excerpts of which can be seen here.