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Pembroke brush fires keep firefighters busy this week

PEMBROKE TOWNSHIP — Dry, sandy soil and gusty winds make it easy for brush fires to ignite.

That was the case Monday as an unattended fire in the 7000 block of South 17000E Road in Pembroke led to firefighters battling two blazes for more than four hours. Firefighters were back at the scene Tuesday afternoon and evening as the fire had rekindled and began claiming more acres. They were then on scene again Wednesday for the same reason.

“It must be 200 to 300 acres, and that is probably low-balling it,’’ Pembroke Fire Chief Mark Baines said when asked how much land was scorched.

“People all know that when it is dry and windy, don’t burn. And if you do, don’t leave the fire unattended,” he said. “I have heard people so many times say they just went into the house for a minute. Why take the chance of putting your life or the life of your neighbors at risk?”

The brush fires brought in firefighters from around the area and Newton County, Ind., to get the blaze under control.

At one point in the first round of Tuesday’s fight, firefighters were ordered out of the fire area. Baines said a firefighter was unaccounted for as the flames and smoke were whipped around by winds gusting between 20 and 25 mph. Once the firefighter was located, Baines said, it was back to battling the blaze that was so big, crews were hitting it from three different sites.

Tuesday’s second fire began around 6 p.m. and was not wrapped up until 1 a.m. Wednesday.

Local farmer Scott DeYoung plowed ground that allowed firefighters to set a back burn to stop the fire from spreading, Baines said.

There have also been brush fires in Otto Township and the Essex area this week.

Due to gusty winds forecasted and dry soil conditions this week, the National Weather Service Chicago office posted an elevated fire risk for north central and northeast Illinois and northwestern Indiana.

Attorney offers insight on teacher strike process

BOURBONNAIS — The teacher strike in Bourbonnais has been ongoing for a week now, as a contract agreement remains elusive after two bargaining sessions totaling about 10 hours this week. Negotiations are set to resume at 5:30 p.m. today.

The Bourbonnais Education Association and Bourbonnais School Board met for about seven hours Tuesday and three hours Wednesday.

Yet to be resolved are specifics dealing with health insurance structure and the amount of the district’s contribution toward the health insurance of future employees, according to statements from both parties.

The board said it has increased its salary offer to a 10.5 percent increase over three years.

How long could this last?

John Brosnan, special counsel to the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board, explained how the strike process typically works in a phone interview Wednesday.

He said that the seven-hour meeting Tuesday was probably a good sign that progress was being made toward an agreement.

“I’ve seen other cases where they’ll meet for 15 or 20 minutes,” he said. “Those ones are more worrisome because that’s a sign they barely had time to chat.”

While every case is different, teacher strikes typically end with a resolution within a week or so, Brosnan said.

The strike puts pressure on both sides — with teachers going unpaid, and the district facing unhappy parents — which tends to push them toward an agreement.

“Teacher strikes, because of people wanting their kids in school and things like that, don’t drag out as long,” he said. “Generally, they tend to get wrapped up pretty quickly.”

There have been instances in which a tentative agreement was reached later the same day after teachers declared a strike. In other cases, teacher strikes have lasted two to three weeks.

Occasionally, there will be a situation where no movement is made toward an agreement for a substantial period of time. In those instances, the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service can get involved to help settle the dispute.

“There are situations where both sides get their backs up and have a hard time finding a middle ground,” Brosnan said. “The FMCS people are very good at explaining to each side, look, I know this is what you want, but realistically you’re not going to get this with this contract.”

In the private sector, employers sometimes will hire replacements for workers to try to break the strike, but there are provisions to prevent that in the public sector, such as with school districts, Brosnan said.

Where do we go from here?

How soon schools are back in session after a strike depends on the circumstances, Brosnan said.

Typically, once a tentative agreement is reached, school would resume very soon, maybe a day or two later.

For example, if a deal is reached Thursday, school might then resume on Monday.

Upon a tentative agreement, the parties would still have to go back and forth drafting the language of the contract, which could take a month to six weeks. Both sides would also have to vote on the contract for it to become official.

“It might not be the next day, but [schools would reopen] pretty soon thereafter [a tentative deal],” he said. “They are certainly not going to wait until the contract is fully drafted or anything.”

What about summer school?

Bourbonnais Superintendent Adam Ehrman has said the district intends to make up days lost due to a teachers strike during the summer, particularly because so much class time has already been lost this school year due to the pandemic.

Brosnan said some districts opt not to make up days, for example, if the strike only lasted three days and there are a few snow days allowed into the calendar.

However, if the strike stretches beyond four or five days, most districts don’t have enough snow days to account for the loss and still meet the state’s requirements for a full school year.

Making up days during spring break can be an option, but parents often don’t want that because they may already have made plans, Brosnan said.

Usually, both sides will negotiate how and when days lost to a strike are to be made up in the calendar, he said.

State agencies release updated COVID-19 guidance for schools

The minimum social distance requirement in schools has been reduced from 6 to 3 feet as part of updated guidance released this week by the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Illinois State Board of Education.

The 22-page document of Revised Public Health Guidance for Schools was prompted by recently updated CDC guidance, which reinforces the importance of schools to community infrastructure, State Superintendent Carmen Ayala said in a letter on ISBE’s website.

“This joint guidance supports the return to in-person instruction as soon as practicable in each community,” she said.

Ayala said in the letter that the new guidance reflects what officials have learned about the transmission of COVID-19 in school settings as more students in Illinois and nationwide have returned to classrooms.

“Day by day, more and more districts on our COVID-19 dashboard move into the hybrid and in-person learning columns,” she said. “More and more teachers are receiving the vaccine, and our [state] positivity rates are below 3 percent.”

The recommendation for social distancing in schools is now defined as 3 to 6 feet for students and fully vaccinated staff, though 6 feet is still the recommended safest distance.

The guidance specifies that unvaccinated staff should maintain 6 feet of social distance as much as possible because adults remain more susceptible to infection than children.

The guidance also specifies that strict adherence to social distancing must be maintained when face masks are removed in limited situations, such as during lunch, and monitored by school staff.

Another change is that capacity limits for in-person learning spaces, including lunch and other school activities, are now determined by the space’s ability to accommodate social distancing rather than a set number or percentage, while bus capacity remains at 50 people.

Additionally, the IDPH and CDC are no longer recommending symptom screenings at schools, though schools are advised they may continue the practice if preferred.

Regardless of the level of community transmission, all schools are still required to use five essential mitigation strategies, the guidelines say. These include the wearing of PPE, social distancing as much as possible, continued contact tracing and isolation/quarantine protocols, increased schoolwide cleaning efforts, and promoting handwashing.

Six feet is still the standard when it comes to identifying close-contact individuals in schools.

Schools also must continue to provide a remote learning option for families of students at increased risk of severe illness or who live with people at increased risk, consistent with the updated CDC guidance.

Bradley, Kankakee mayoral debates set

With the April 6 election rapidly approaching, a series of candidate forums hosted by the Kankakee County Branch of the NAACP are set for next week.

Also coming next week is the expected start of early voting. Kankakee County Clerk Dan Hendrickson said voters could likely start casting their ballots no later than Friday, March 19. Hendrickson is waiting for final word on candidates who may be slated by established political parties to run for offices who had not previously filed.

It appears at this point, Hendrickson said, that the only additional candidate to be slated will be Destini Sutherland-Hall, a Republican, who will be opposing Democrat Stacy Gall for the Kankakee city clerk position. Anjanita Dumas, the clerk for the previous 20 years, is not seeking reelection.

Early voting will be held at the clerk’s downtown Kankakee office, 189 E. Court St.

The first of five forums in contested races around the county will be 6 p.m. Tuesday, March 16, at Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School auditorium. It will feature the Bradley mayoral hopefuls, Bradley Mayor Pro Tem Mike Watson and former village trustee Lori Gadbois.

Two days later — at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, March 18, at the Kankakee Public Library — candidates in the two Kankakee alderman races will take the stage. In the city’s 3rd Ward, voters will hear from Alderman Larry Osenga and challenger Ben Clark; then candidates Frank Hasik IV and Dawn Tutt in the 4th Ward.

Following the aldermanic debate that evening, Kankakee Mayor Chasity Wells-Armstrong and mayoral hopeful Chris Curtis will take center stage at 6:45 p.m.

The following week, at 5:30 p.m. March 23, a forum featuring Kankakee City Clerk candidates Stacy Gall and Destini Sutherland-Hall, will be held, again at the Kankakee Public Library.

The clerk forum will be followed by Kankakee School District board of education candidates.

The final forum of the series will be 5:30 p.m. March 25 at Lorenzo Smith Elementary School in Pembroke featuring candidates for Pembroke Township supervisors and trustees.

A planned candidates debate among Bourbonnais Elementary school board candidates has been canceled due to the teachers’ strike.