On Aug. 5, Riverside Elementary School District 96 became the final local school district to adopt a plan for starting school this year in the midst of a pandemic.
The District 96 Board of Education voted 6 to 1 at a special meeting held in the Hauser Junior High auditorium to approve a hybrid plan, featuring part-time, in-person attendance for those who wish that and a fully remote option for those who do not feel it is safe to send their children back to school.
It was first full, in-person meeting for the entire school board since March 4.
The school board adopted the hybrid plan despite the fact that slightly more than half of teachers who responded to a survey sent out by the teachers union, the Riverside Education Council, opposed returning for in-person learning.
Shari Klyber cast the only vote against the plan, saying that while she thought the hybrid plan was good, she thought that the COVID-19 positivity rate was just too large to have in-person learning right now.
“There’s too much of an uptick right now, but I think it is a good plan,” Klyber said, adding that she felt the positivity rate should be below 5 percent before in-person learning starts. She said that most recent positivity rate in the area is 5.7 percent.
In a subsequent interview Klyber said that she wished that the school board had received more input from teachers.
Many District 96 teachers are uneasy about returning to teach students in person, because of health and safety concerns. Many teachers also face child care issues because their own children have to attend classes remotely for some or all of the time.
According to the REC survey, 51 percent of members said they were opposed to returning to in-person learning. Of that number, 42 percent said they opposed in-person learning but would return to work if the school board approved a hybrid plan. Nearly 9 percent said they would consider applying for leave of absence if a hybrid plan was adopted.
Thirty-five percent of REC members responding to the survey said that they supported the district’s hybrid plan. Another 13.4 percent said that they supported the plan with modifications.
About 61 percent of REC members responded to the survey.
“I think we’ve had mixed feedback,” District 96 Superintendent Martha Ryan-Toye said of the reaction of teachers. “We’ve been working very closely with the Riverside Education Council and we are aware of the great challenges in the return to work plan. We are continuing to work with staff with their child care, medical and health reasons, and we continue to promote a very safe plan.”
The results of the survey were shared with school board members before the vote. On Aug. 5 Ryan-Toye and Lynda Murphy, the school board’s liaison to the REC, held a Zoom meeting with REC co-presidents Jen Ohlman and Katie Kayastha. After that meeting Murphy emailed other board members the results of the survey and some comments.
The return-to-school plan was developed in meetings this summer with a COVID-19 transition team that included 28 people, including 19 REC members and nine administrators.
One member of that committee, Hauser sixth-grade ELA teacher Jen Kovar, said that she felt that the 100-percent remote learning option was never seriously considered.
“Remote learning was never put on the table,” Kovar said. “We didn’t consider remote learning as one of the options. We kept coming back to the principle that in-person learning is best without acknowledging how restrictive that experience would be.”
Ryan-Toye said at the school board meeting that the reopening plan is flexible and she anticipates that at some time during the school year the district will probably have to switch to 100-percent remote learning for a time.
“I think we can live all scenarios in a single school year,” Ryan-Toye said.
But Ryan-Toye said that education works best in person and it was important for teachers to build relationships with children and for children to be with each other.
“Teaching is an in-person business,” Ryan-Toye said.
Kovar agreed with that, but she said under the restrictive social distancing requirements that will be in place, in-person learning will be but a pale imitation of what students and parents are accustomed to.
“The teaching and learning is so hindered, so truncated,” Kovar said. “We can’t do collaborative projects, because the kids can’t go near each other. I can’t walk up to a kiddo to help her with her assignment.”
Under the circumstances, Kovar said that she thinks 100-percent remote learning is the better option.
“The quality of the teaching and learning is going to be so limited, so restricted, that it’s not worth taking the risk,” Kovar said. “We can do just as good of a job, if not better, through remote learning and keep everybody safe. We are putting people’s lives at risk.”
Kovar said she recognized the hard work that administrators have put into making this decision.
“I appreciate Martha and the committee and the principals working very hard in an extremely difficult, no-win situation,” Kovar said.
Board members felt pressure before casting their votes.
“This is weighing on everybody,” Murphy said. “This is not easy.”
Board member Joel Marhoul said that he supported the reopening plan because it gave families the choice of whether to send their kids to school in person or have them do remote learning.
“I don’t think there is one best option,” Marhoul said. “It does come down to personal choice.”
For families choosing the hybrid plan, the district’s four elementary schools will be on a different schedule than L.J. Hauser Junior High School.
Elementary school students will attend school five days a week for half the day. Sessions will last for 2 hours, 40 minutes and will focus on core subjects, with other subjects being taught remotely.
Elementary students in the hybrid plan will attend school in person either in the morning or afternoon. In the break between the morning and afternoon sessions, classrooms will be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected.
Hauser students will also be split into two groups, with one attending in person on Mondays and Tuesdays and the other attending in person on Thursdays and Fridays. All students must wear face coverings inside school buildings.
Gym classes at Hauser will consist of students going outside for a walk and perhaps a snack. Students will be able to take off their masks while outside.
“We really feel that the most important thing is getting some fresh air and walking around,” said Hauser Principal April Mahy.
At Hauser, like in the elementary schools, students will stay in the same classroom with the same group of classmates with teachers moving from classroom to classroom. Wednesday will be a remote learning day for all Hauser students.
No lunches will be served at any District 96 school, although grab-and-go sack lunches will be free for students who qualify for the free and reduced lunch program and might be available for purchase by other students.
No more than 15 students will be in a classroom at either Hauser or the elementary schools and strict social distancing will be enforced with students instructed to stay at least six feet away from each other.
Students who choose the remote option will have all their instruction delivered remotely by District 96 teachers. Families who choose the remote option will have to continue with the remote learning for the entire first trimester.
Families are being asked to pick between two options by Aug. 13. The first day of school is Aug. 31, although that could be pushed back a day.
Grades will be given and remote learning attendance will be taken. School will be more rigorous and structured than it was during remote learning last spring.
“What you experienced with learning in the spring is not going to be what you experience going forward,” said Angela Dolezal the district’s director of teaching and learning. “It will be less work for the parents. The actual instruction will be less parent-driven and more school-driven.”