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A Hero In and Out of the Classroom

Captain Bob Monroe teaches literature and composition for grades six through eight at Pontiac Junior High School and participates in and/or coordinates several school activities, including Girls on the Run, Let me Run, Science Olympiad, and the Scripps National Spelling Bee. He is co-president of the Pontiac-William Holliday Federation of Teachers (Local 1811).

Captain Monroe serves in the Air National Guard and has been on military leave to work with the state to set up and supervise a COVID testing site in East St. Louis requested by state Senator Christopher Belt (57th District, and Vice Chair of the Senate Education Committee). We talked to both about the site and how it came to be.

Q: When did you start military leave and how did that affect the classes you teach?

CM: My activation occurred officially in late April, but I had a bit of notice so I could at least list out the remainder of my assignments on the class calendar and schedule them to show up on the appropriate days in my Google classroom.

While I would love to continue my class Google Meet meetings, my duties at the test site restrict my ability to do that at a reasonable hour. I miss them, though, and hope to find the time to do a meeting from my operations center. I do check my Google hangouts and school email nightly to maintain a line of communication.

Q: Why is this testing site important to the Metro East community?

SB: While this pandemic has wreaked havoc and economic upheaval throughout the world, it has been particularly horrific for African Americans. The sad reality is that this virus has disproportionately impacted the lives of African Americans due to the comorbidity rates and underlying health issues pervasive in the African American community. Having the Illinois Emergency Management Agency (IEMA) site in East St Louis is vital to fighting the spread of COVID in our diverse community.

Q: What was the process for setting up the testing site?

SB: The IEMA testing site came to fruition because of the willingness of Governor Pritzker's administration to accommodate the request of myself and State Representative Greenwood to have a testing site in East St Louis that could handle a high volume of people looking to be tested for COVID-19. It was a collaborative effort with the National Guard, Illinois State Police, and the Illinois Department of Transportation on the state level, as well as local government and not-for-profits like the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center (the test site location) working for the greater good of the whole community.

CM: The test site started with building the large drive through tents and smaller walk-up tents. Then all of the equipment and supplies were coordinated and supplied for the testing, and our personnel were trained to perform the tests from start to finish. Finally, the big day arrived, and the gates opened. This site is a bit unique because we are the first State Community Based Site that offers both a walk-up and drive-through testing option, which means all of my airmen had to know both procedures in and out before we took any citizens requesting testing.

Q: What is a typical day like at the testing site?

CM: My day starts around 5:00 a.m. After getting in uniform, I usually recheck my emails from the night before and review my schedule for the day. I am quarantined in a local hotel to protect my friends and family, so I head down to the lobby, now our medical check location. Every member of my team is required to undergo a medical check at the beginning and end of every workday, whether on shift or not. I head to the test site around 6:45 to open up and prepare for my morning brief. The airmen begin arriving around 7:30 to set up, and we open at 8:00. We process and track those being tested until 4:00 p.m. My job's not too exciting: briefings, meetings, tours, reports, and calls. My airmen are the ones doing all the hard work. Our 60 National Guard members, working with IEMA and the Department of Public Health can test 500 people per day. We take precautionary measures seriously, and face masks and social distancing is mandatory for anyone to enter the site. Measures have been taken upon entry and exit to minimize person to person contact. Our walk-up testing facility has a plan in place to test citizens in a very similar fashion to those being tested in common drive-through facilities. Instead of a car window, we use a plexiglass system with a pass-through drawer. We use self-swab tests and personal protective equipment, and we double bag each sample before sending to the lab for testing.

Q: How are you coping with being quarantined away from your family? How are you staying in touch?

CM: I call my family every night. Sometimes I video call, sometimes it is just voice, but that connection is important for my wife, children, and me. Sometimes I call home and we read books together or watch a show at the same time.

Q: What are you most looking forward to once the pandemic is over?

CM: Rather than look forward to what might happen, I try to appreciate what we have right now. The past couple of months have really made me appreciate spending time with my family, playing games, and learning to slow down.

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