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Jefferson Park, Portage Park

Portage Park School Staff Returns For The First Time Since Coronavirus Hit Campus In March

Vaughn Occupational, which serves students with complex disabilities, was the first CPS school to have an employee diagnosed with coronavirus. Now, staffers are returning — nervously.

Vaughn Occupational High School in Portage Park was closed on March 6, 2020 after a teacher was diagnosed with COVID-19. The school reopened to staff Monday.
Bob Chiarito/Block Club Chicago
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PORTAGE PARK — Stephanie Anderson stood outside Vaughn Occupational High School Monday before sunrise, wearing gloves to insulate her from the frigid temperature and a face mask to shield her from coronavirus.

Anderson, an assistant principal at the school, 4355 N. Linder Ave., greeted faculty members as they came back to the building for the first time since early in the school year. Vaughn, which serves 200-plus students with complex disabilities, was the site of the first CPS coronavirus case in March.

RELATED: Some CPS Teachers Refusing To Return To In-Person Learning Due To Coronavirus: ‘I Am In Fear For My Life’

The school staggered faculty start times over a 45-minute period to keep people apart from one another, Anderson said.

“I feel confident that the principal and I have done everything we can to prepare the building and that we have the supplies we need,” she said.

And despite the Chicago Teachers Union’s warning that educators would refuse to return to in-person classes because of coronavirus, the amount of sick calls at Vaughn was “nothing abnormal,” Anderson said. “It’s maybe even less than what we’d have after a holiday.”

Anderson wouldn’t comment on whether she supported the district’s reopening plan, but she said she was doing what she could do keep staffers safe. CPS expects 5,800 teachers to return to the classroom Monday with the goal of having students begin to return to in-person learning Jan. 11.

“I have my own personal beliefs but I’m not going to comment on that at this time. We’ve done everything we can here within our power and have bought extra PPE and done all we can to get ready,” she said.

Vaughn Occupational students travel from across the city to receive services from 85 educators and specialists. In March, the school was the first CPS school to have an employee be diagnosed with coronavirus. The employee worked several days while unknowingly sick with the virus and presumably caught it on a cruise she went on before returning to work in March.

RELATED: Aldermen Say They Are ‘Deeply Concerned’ About CPS Reopening Plan

On Monday, returning English and math teacher Danny Henderson said coming back to school right now was “the worst.”

“It’s the first day back so it’s kind of hard to know, but I did have a lot of anxiety about coming back and I’m usually pretty cool under pressure,” Henderson said. “They should have waited until the vaccine was more available.”

Most teachers who stopped to talk outside the school Monday morning said they had mixed emotions about returning.

“I have a lot of questions. We can’t dine in [at restaurants]. If we can’t do that, how is it that we can have kids come into school?” asked teachers aide Gary Ramos. “They have communicated to us a lot of the changes they’ve made and things they’ve done to keep us safe. I’m just hoping all those things are in place. Going in today I’ll be on the lookout, but again, there’s a lot of questions I have.”

One classroom assistant who asked that his name not be published said CPS should have waited longer. He thinks teachers are being treated better than other staff.

“I feel mixed about it, especially since the vaccine rollout has slowed down.  I’m not really comfortable,” said the classroom assistant. “There’s a lot of inequity with a lot of the teachers still at home, plus we all have loved ones we come in contact with, so it’s pretty much bullshit that we’re here.”

A special education classroom assistant who asked to be identified only as Richard L. seemed to sum up the feelings of many at Vaughn.

“I do wish we could have waited, but I feel confident in our school and its leadership,” he said. “But yes, I’m leery.”

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