In a scathing letter released to the public, the teachers union in Evanston/Skokie School District 65 says out-of-date or poorly implemented health and safety plans, along with “unreasonable workload and unclear communication” from administrators “has destroyed morale in our schools and allows for a toxic climate to continue unchecked.”

The “Dear families” letter (.pdf) is from the Executive Board of the District Educators Council (DEC).

The union leaders thank the community for its support and understanding during the pandemic.

“Like you,” DEC says “educators are adapting to extremely stressful working conditions that are taking a toll on our well-being,” well-being which is directly tied to the teachers’ ability to educate young minds.

“We worry about the current state of our school district in regards to safety, workload, and collaboration,” the union says.

DEC leaders say that District 65’s COVID-19 protocols are “confusing and vary from building to building,” while 231 students and 30 staff members have tested positive for the virus in the 10 days leading up to winter break.

The union says the district has failed to use an app which could give teachers numerical information about positive tests and quarantines much quicker than is provided now.

“Currently,” DEC says, “many educators are learning that a student is moved into quarantine from other students and parents instead of from the administration.”

The union adds that this lack of a clearly communicated protocol “leaves staff unable to assess their own safety and unable to provide support for the students who are affected.”

In addition to COVID, the union says the combination of school violence and a shortage of employees “make it difficult to create a conducive learning environment for our students.”

The union adds that as of Dec. 10, “multiple building safety plans were not updated when the union visited and checked with members in various buildings.”

DEC says concerns it has raised about this lack of school safety plans have not been addressed by the administration.

The union also says that multiple changes in curriculum, learning plans and other requirements added on top of a pandemic have been “given to educators at the last minute with little to no time to prepare or be thoughtful about implementation.”

DEC states that “unreasonable workload and unclear communication” has led to a decline in staff mental health, which in turn impacts the quality of instruction;.

The union notes a great number of teachers taking leave or resigning, and says this is not simply because of the pandemic or the “great resignation” going on around the country.

Rather, DEC says, administrators are not listening to educators’ concerns, and “their voices are being disregarded in favor of blaming district issues on the national crisis instead of dealing with local problems.”

The union says they want to work collaboratively with the School Board and the administration to resolve the ongoing issues, to help close the achievement gap and improve learning.

The teachers want federal COVID relief dollars used to “prioritize basic day-to-day operations of school buildings,” put basic safety and behavior protocols in place “before we solely focus on boosting test scores,” and have COVID policies communicated more clearly.

Over the past few weeks, School Board members and Superintendent Devon Horton have acknowledged that the pace of adopting new educational policies has been too fast, while stating that long-term, those changes are needed, particularly as part of the district’s commitment to equity.

Board members and the superintendent say they have also been meeting at school buildings with teachers, to better understand their concerns.

While those conversations may be helping, the DEC letter indicates there are a lot of issues still unresolved.

“If we wish to retain a workforce of diverse and highly qualified educators for our students,” the union says, “we must fix these issues in our current work environment.”

This isn’t the first sign of discontent among District 65 educators. The teachers also protested working conditions in the schools during a school board meeting in October.

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