With Evanston Township High School scheduled to reopen for in-person classes on Wednesday, the union representing more than 300 ETHS teachers says they want independent confirmation that the heating, ventilation, and air conditions system is working properly.

In a memo to union membership which was also shared with the ETHS administration, Teachers Council President GionMatthias Schelbert says there has been tentative agreement with the school district on 18 items for a Memorandum of Understanding on terms for reopening ETHS for in-person learning. Among those items are that the school provides personal protective equipment, there is “whistleblower protection” for employees who might report non-compliance with COVID mitigation standards, and there will be “zero tolerance” for students who do not wear masks.

However, the memo also mentions two unresolved issues. One is “sub pay,” how much teachers get if they cover classes which are now longer.

The other issue is HVAC. The Teachers Council has asked the administration for an independent third party to verify that the HVAC system is working properly, which is critical in reducing the spread of coronavirus in a building.

The union has even offered to pay for its own expert to review the system, but the memo says “Dr. Eric Witherspoon [District 202 Superintendent] denied our request for this inspection without offering an explanation or documentation….”

Schelbert tells Evanston Now the Teachers Council and the District 202 administration have a good working relationship. He says the union is not looking for a “gotcha” moment, but just wants a third party to review the HVAC operations.

“This is an airborne virus,” Shelbert says. “We would like the HVAC system inspected.” He notes the administration said the system has been checked, and documents will be provided. However, Schelbert says while some paperwork was provided earlier today, it does not appear there was an independent assessment.

“When you buy a house, you have your own inspector,” he says. “It’s not that you don’t believe the homeowner,” but you want an independent look.

Schelbert says the administration has provided air quality reports showing the building is COVD-free. However, he notes that test is just a snapshot in time, and ongoing HVAC operations are a different question.

With nearly half of the high school’s 3,600 students and all 600 staff members beginning hybrid in-person instruction on Wednesday, Schelbert notes the ventilation system is critical in keeping air flowing and safe with such a large number of people in the building.

He says the teachers want to believe the district’s claims that the HVAC system has been upgraded, but they just want independent confirmation, whether it’s their own expert or another. And if documents ETHS provides have that independent view, then Schelbert says that’s fine. But so far, he says, the union has not seen it.

Schelbert says the maintenance and janitorial staff has done an excellent job in getting the school ready to welcome students and employees. “I’ve never seen it so spit-polished clean,” he says. And, he says, you can sense air flowing.

He also says the teachers will report on Wednesday whether the HVAC question is resolved or not. “We are not going to do an illegal job action,” he says. “We are here to serve our students.”

However, even if the issue is not wrapped up by Wednesday, Schelbert says the union will continue negotiating until it sees an independent HVAC assessment.

Returning to school during a pandemic is “an incredible challenge,” Schelbert says. But “we’ll make it work,” he says. “ETHS teachers have always made it work. This is no exception.”

Evanston Now has reached out to the ETHS administration for comment, but we have not yet heard back.

Update 6:40 a.m. 4/13/21:

At Monday night’s District 202 Board of Education Meeting, ETHS principal Marcus Campbell outlined improvements to the building related to coronavirus safety.

He said all air filters have been upgraded, classroom and office desks have been moved six feet apart, there will be “more intense cleaning and sanitizing” each day, and PPE kits will be in every classroom in case students do not bring masks from home, among many other measures.

Campbell said there was an air quality test at both the high school and at the day school building last month, and added that ETHS is following Centers for Disease Control, Illinois Department of Public Health, and Illinois State Board of Education guidelines.

“We believe we are following all the appropriate mitigation efforts,” he said.

There was no mention nor discussion, however, of the Teachers Council request for an independent review of the HVAC system.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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