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Teachers unions fire back after comments from Dr. Martell, request changes to COVID-19 policies

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ROCKFORD (WREX) — Two teachers unions criticize the Winnebago County Health Department's response to the coronavirus in schools. Leaders for the unions also took issue with remarks made by Public Health Administrator Dr. Sandra Martell at a weekly news conference on Monday.

Here's what she said during that news conference: "The school children, I'm going to call them the 'little kiddos' have been doing a great job. The school personnel, I'm going call them the 'adult kiddos,' have not been following the guidance consistence [sic]."

In a statement released Tuesday morning, the Rockford Education Association says it was "appalled" by those comments, saying Dr. Martell is blaming teachers for spreading the virus.

REA officials say teachers warned the health department all summer and called its back-to-school plan flawed.

Likewise, the Harlem Federation of Teachers also criticized Dr. Martell's statement in a letter of its own. That letter says the health department is partially responsible for the virus spreading.

13 WREX interviewed leaders for both unions Tuesday afternoon.

"I think to refer to us as adult kiddos also demeans us a little bit," Brad Sweet, the Co-President for the Harlem Federation of Teachers said.

"There was a large outreach from our people who were upset," Mel Gilfillan, REA's President added.

The union leaders say there are issues with the virus in schools, but it's not because of teachers. They say some of the issues are due to policies by the health department. For example, the Harlem Federation of Teachers says the WCHD's contact-tracing methods are lagging.

"They (teachers) knew about their contact (positive case or potential exposure) themselves well before — days before — the Winnebago County Health Department ever contacted them," Sweet explained.

Officials for the health department say contact-tracing happens within 24 hours after it's notified of a positive case, but Sweet said that is not happening in every case. Sweet also said when a student, or teacher, tests positive for COVID-19, other teachers in close proximity are told to wait to hear from the WCHD on whether or not they should quarantine.

"They wait two days to hear, maybe three," Sweet said.

Sweet said that means people potentially infected with the virus could return to the classroom. It's a policy that Sweet explained was established between the school district and the WCHD. Now, teachers want that policy to change as well as faster notifications on when to quarantine or if they even need to.

Both union leaders said teachers are risking their lives to provide an essential service. They told 13 News this is no time for Dr. Martell to blame educators.

When asked what the next step is if teachers don't feel safe based on the WCHD polices for schools, Sweet said the union will work with the district to move forward, but would consider going back to learning remotely.

Dr. Martell responded to the two letters Monday afternoon with a statement that says in part: "The disproportionate number of adult cases within the school environments is concerning. Adults have greater control and authority over their lives and potential exposures than children."

As for the "adult kiddos" comment as well as others comments the unions' leaders and members took exception to, Dr. Martell said, "There was no intent to diminish the professional role of teachers in our community."

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Richard Bodee

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