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Teacher says she was forced out over her COVID concerns

An Evanston woman says she lost her job teaching at a Catholic school in Wilmette after voicing concerns about the safety of on-site teaching during the pandemic.

St. Francis Xavier School, 808 Linden Ave., Wilmette. (Google Maps)

A veteran teacher who lives in Evanston says she lost her job at a local Catholic school after voicing concerns about classroom teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Elaine Sage was a teacher at St. Francis Xavier school in Wilmette for 14 years. “I love my job,” she told Evanston Now. “I love, love, love it. It’s the best job in the world.”

But Sage says she was forced out after telling administrators it is “too dangerous to go back” to the classroom because of the potential of catching the novel coronavirus.

Sage is afraid of spreading the illness to elderly residents of the building where she lives, and adds other teachers are worried as well, but are afraid to go public. “They’re not sleeping, they’re nervous, they’re crying,” she says.

Teachers in the Archdiocese of Chicago are not unionized. A group calling itself Arch Teachers for Safe Return says it represents hundreds of Catholic school educators. That group, along with the labor rights organization Arise Chicago has a petition drive under way, calling for the Archdiocese to start all classes remotely and have more teacher input in deciding what comes next.

Sage is part of this effort. “We know the classrooms best,” she says. “In a global pandemic it’s not safe.”

But the archdiocese says its schools for 70,000 students in Cook and Lake counties are opening under Illinois Department of Public Health guidelines.

A statement on the web site says the archdiocese “places the health and safety of our students above all else.” It says practices such as temperature checks, wearing masks and spacing out desks to social distance are part of the daily protocol. Each individual school can “make adjustments” to teaching as the year continues. Remote learning is also an option for those families who want it now.

Sage and the archdiocese differ over why she is no longer at St. Francis Xavier.

Sage says she requested the chance to teach remotely, but was turned down. Sage says she refused to resign, so was let out of her contract and told she could apply to other Catholic schools.

The Archdiocese says only 17 of the 600 pre-kindergarten through eighth grade students at St. Francis Xavier asked for e-learning, so there was not enough demand for more than one remote teaching position, which was already filled.

Archdiocese spokesperson Manny Gonzalez says Sage is “free to apply for open remote positions” at other Catholic schools, and if the situation at St. Francis Xavier changes or the pandemic is no longer an issue, “we would welcome her back.”

But Sage says her former school should not open in person, so there should be more remote education teaching jobs available. She says the Archdiocese is “reckless, irresponsible, where is their moral compass?”

St. Francis Xavier opens next Monday. Pope John XXIII elementary school in Evanston opened today. The Archdiocese says about 30 new students have enrolled, “many of whom are transfers from the public school system.” A “handful” have left, and about twenty of the school’s 200 students have opted for remote learning.

Arch Teachers have given the Archdiocese until tomorrow at noon to respond to the demands for remote education and more teacher involvement in planning.

With the archdiocese fully committed to in-person school, and claiming most parents and most of its 5,000 teachers and staff members agree, any change may be unlikely.

Meanwhile, Loyola Academy, a Catholic high school in Wilmette, closed today due to COVID, and will use remote learning for the next two weeks, aiming to re-open for in-person school on September 8.

The school indicates that six of the high school’s students had tested positive for COVID-19, and 63 others had potentially been exposed as of Friday.

Loyola opened its school year last Thursday with a rotating schedule in which only a quarter of the school’s 2,000 students were in the building each day.

In a letter to parents, principal Charlie Heintz says the decision to stop in-person learning and go to totally remote instruction “was not taken lightly.” The principal says “none of the cases have been linked to in-person instruction.” Rather, school officials believe “off campus” exposure is the reason for students coming down with the illness.

Lisa Weber of Evanston is a Loyola parent. Her 17-year-old daughter is a senior. Weber’s daughter was taking e-learning from the start. Weber says “everybody’s mindset is in the old way” of doing things, and remote learning can be better for some students. “It’s hard to think outside the box,” she adds.

Weber says Loyola did the right thing when school opened, offering all-remote for those who wanted it, or an in-person hybrid model for families who preferred at least some classes in the building.

“I think Loyola had the best intention in mind,” Weber says. “They wanted to offer a community as safely as possible” for those desiring school in person, she says. “Unfortunately, it didn’t work out.”

Weber says she applauds Loyola for acting quickly to suspend in-person schooling. “We just have to slow down,” she adds. If school does not re-open in person until January, she says, that’s okay. “Let’s calm down,” she says.

In addition, a Catholic high school in Chicago, St. Rita of Cascia, has stopped in-person classes after two students tested positive for COVID-19. The school will use remote learning for at least the next two weeks.

keywords » COVID-19

Jeff Hirsh

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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