By Bob Skolnik
It takes more than 19 inches of snow to shut down Riverside-Brookfield High School.
A day after the fifth largest snowfall in Chicago history, RBHS was one of the few high schools in the Chicago area to open on Monday.
The only concession to the heavy snow was that RBHS started the school day at 8:40 a.m. — 40 minutes later than usual — to give students and teachers additional time to get to school.
Despite the late start only about half of RBHS students went to school on Monday, according to estimates supplied by some students. More teachers than usual were also absent.
"I'd say about around half of the student body was there," said RBHS senior Kyle Tracy. Only 11 of 34 students were present for his first-period gym class, Tracy said.
Not a lot of teaching was going on because so many students were absent. Many classes became de facto study halls where students could catch up on schoolwork that needed to be done.
"I had study halls in two classes where you just basically got work days, and that seemed to be the general consensus with my friends and stuff," Tracy said. "Some classes watched movies, but for the most part you just did whatever you had to work on. It wasn't as structured as a normal day."
District 208 Superintendent Kevin Skinkis admitted that student attendance was below normal, but neither Skinkis nor Principal Kristin Smetana would provide specific numbers on student and teacher attendance.
"Student attendance was down compared to a normal school day, but several students were still in classes," Skinkis said in an email. "Teacher attendance was good. We had a few additional call-ins or late arrivals, but overall our staff has done a great job during this winter season. Student absences [as long as a parent calls in] were excused. Normal student attendance procedures applied."
The snow had stopped falling by Monday morning. The sun was out and the sky was bright on a cold morning. However, the sheer accumulation of snow, made worse by blowing and drifting, made travel challenging.
"I wouldn't say, honestly, it was difficult or treacherous, but it was certainly a pain either having to walk in the street or the sidewalks weren't shoveled up to my knees," said Tracy, who lives only a couple of blocks away from the high school.
The sidewalk along the Rockefeller Avenue parking lot was not shoveled. Students coming from Riverside had to walk in the street on Forest Avenue. Social media was full of chatter with angry comments from parents about the decision to keep the school open.
Two of the three elementary school districts that feed into RBHS also stayed open with only Brookfield-LaGrange Park District 95 closing.
District 95 Superintendent Mark Kuzniewski said that he decided to cancel school because of the snow drifts around his two schools.
Skinkis and the three feeder school district superintendents were furiously texting each other Sunday evening trying to decide what to do. Generally, the feeder districts try to do what RBHS does.
Komarek School stayed open Monday with a normal start time.
"I think our parents want us to be open," said Neil Pellicci, the superintendent of Komarek District 94. "That's kind of my general feeling. I really think it's important that we try to stay open as often as we can."
Pellicci said that 39 percent of Komarek students were absent on Monday, but only two teachers couldn't get to school. Pellicci said if RBHS had closed, he might have made a different decision and probably would have at least gone with a late start.
Riverside District 96 decided to open largely because RBHS did.
"I would have followed what RBHS did," said Superintendent Bhavna Sharma-Lewis. "The majority consensus from our families is that they would like us to follow RB, because the older siblings that go there take care of the little ones."
District 96 told parents that absences and tardies would be excused and that parents could keep their kids home from school if they wished.
"We thought it was a win-win for everyone," Sharma-Lewis said.
But Monday was a day of confusion for District 96 parents. They were initially notified Sunday evening that school would be open at the normal time. Then the district's snow plow broke down overnight, and administrators had to scramble to find alternative snow removal.
So at 5 a.m. on Monday, Sharma-Lewis sent out a robocall telling parents that school would not start until 10 a.m., although school doors would open at 8.
Then in the middle of the school day, administrators realized that if students were released at the normal Monday early release time, they would not have received the require five hours of instructional time for the district to get credit for the school day by the state.
As a result, another email was sent out, telling parents school would remain in session until the normal Tuesday through Friday dismissal time, although parents could pick up their children at the one hour earlier Monday dismissal time if they wanted to.
Sharma-Lewis said that nearly 1,000 of the district's approximately 1,700 students were in school Monday with 395 students entering the buildings at around 8 a.m.
Skinkis has been particularly determined to keep RBHS open. The school, along with Komarek School in North Riverside, was one of the only schools that didn't close at least one day during bitter below-zero cold last month.
"Canceling school is not an easy decision to make," Skinkis said. "Our goal is to try and have school open every day as scheduled."
Tracy said some students were allowed leave RBHS early if their parents called the school to authorize it. He was one of them and left early.
"It was definitely unproductive," Tracy said. "I was more productive at home shoveling for some people who couldn't shovel."
Tracy said nearly all RBHS students he spoke to thought that school should have been cancelled on Monday.
"Part of me respects the decision to try and stay open, but they knew tons and tons of kids were not going to show up, and when you have less than half of your students there you can't really have a productive day of teaching," Tracy said.