Despite the fervent opposition of the teachers’ union, the Riverside-Brookfield High School District 208 Board of Education voted unanimously Aug. 11 to ratify the administration’s decision to start the school year next week with a hybrid learning plan that combines twice-a-week, in-person attendance with remote learning. Students can also choose a 100-percent remote learning option.
The board voted to ratify the plan after a three-hour discussion that included more than an hour of public comment, including impassioned remarks both favoring and opposing a return to in-person schooling.
Prior to the start of the meeting, nearly 100 teachers, paraprofessionals and supporters rallied in front of the old main entrance of the school on Ridgewood Road, chanting and holding signs calling for the school to switch to remote learning.
District 208 school board President Wes Smithing said that he was surprised by the RBEA’s opposition to the hybrid plan, saying that union leaders helped develop the plan.
“When we talked to them in July everything was fine,” Smithing said. “I don’t understand why they want to close the school.”
Board members said students want and need to attend school in person, and they indicated they have confidence in the administration’s ability to provide a safe environment despite the continuing novel coronavirus pandemic.
“I think the hybrid is going to work,” said Smithing. “It’s the best thing that we have. I think we’re doing what the community wants, to open the schools.”
Longtime board member Laura Hruska said many people are going to their places of work, noting she does so at UPS, and she noted essential workers have worked throughout the pandemic.
“We have been told by experts that we have to learn to live,” Hruska said. “And I see families in Brookfield. The restaurants are full, the grocery stores are full, Costco is full, people are going out. The park is full. People are living the hybrid model.”
During the public comment period, two RBHS students and one recent graduate spoke in favor of allowing students to return to school for in-person classes, saying they learn better in person and that they want and need to see their friends.
“To be at school does not only mean just to learn,” said senior Nic Novak, the president of the National Honor Society at RBHS. “It has been hard not to see some of my closest friends since I haven’t been at school. School is somewhere I can express myself and express my feelings for others.”
Sophomore Veronica Hunt also said that she wanted to return to school.
“I really need the hybrid option,” Hunt said. “I feel it’s really important that I go back to school.”
Charles Svestka, a 2019 graduate of RBHS and currently a student at the Illinois Institute of Technology, said that while there may be some health risks in going to back to school, there are greater risks in isolating students at home.
“During this pandemic, I have not had a single classmate die of COVID-19,” Svestka said. “I have had, however, two classmates, friends, the age of 19 and 20, commit suicide due to the immense loneliness and isolation the lockdown caused.”
Chris Rausch, the father of a sophomore and senior from Brookfield, was happy that the board voted to stick with the hybrid plan.
“This is what we were hoping to hear, and we think it’s important for the kids to get back into school,” Rausch said as he left the meeting. “We think the remote learning is a far inferior form of education, so we’re pretty happy that they’ll get some in-person learning, even if it doesn’t last the entire year.”
Tricia McVicker, the mother of an RBHS sophomore and a member of the school’s COVID-19 transition committee, rejected the call from the teachers union that RBHS follow schools such Lyons Township High School, Oak Park and River Forest High School and Morton High School that have opted to start the year with 100 percent remote learning.
“We’re not OPRF, we are not LT, and we are not Morton West,” McVicker said. “They have 4,000 students.”
McVicker, who is a nurse and the director of nursing for a home health agency, said that the COVID-19 transition committee looked at all the options and made the best choice they could.
“We have developed a successful plan to bring the kids back to the school,” McVicker said. “Our children need to be at the school.”
She rejected claims that the committee was just a fig leaf for the administration.
“This was not a top-down decision; this was a committee decision,” McVicker said.
During the public comment period three members of the teachers’ union, the RBEA, called upon the school board to switch to 100 percent remote learning to start the school year.
“If major league baseball, with all its resources and testing and billions of dollars, cannot contain COVID and keep its players safe, then how can RB possibly expect to do with handheld thermometers and hope,” said RBHS English teacher Tom Fuller, a member of the union’s welfare committee. “Common sense should rule the day.”
Math teacher Dan Bonarigo, the president of the RBEA, told that school board that a union survey indicated that close to 80 percent of the teachers and paraprofessionals opposed the plan that the school board ratified later in the evening.
He said that nearly 90 percent of the teachers are not confident that in-person instruction will be safe.
Remote learning, Bonarigo said, “is the safest option for the students, their families, staff, and our community. It allows for the consistent, quality instruction for the students of RB, and is provided solely by the professional staff members of RB.”
The morning after the meeting Marty Sloan, the president-elect of RBEA, was disappointed in the board’s decision.
“Per the recent Landmark article, [Superintendent Kevin] Skinkis referred to RBEA members as being ‘angry because they are upset about the return to in-person learning.’ He is severely misinterpreting our emotions,” said Sloan in an email. “What you are seeing from our staff is fear and not anger. We simply want the students, their families, staff and the community to be safe.”
School board member Tom Jacobs called the vote the toughest decision he’s had to make since he elected to the school board last year.
“This is not a black-and-white decision,” Jacobs said.
Jacobs decried some of the harsh rhetoric that came from a few of the opponents of the hybrid plan, while at the same time saying that many of comments were informative and useful.
“There have been unfocused, very confrontational, very unfair and very offensive comments made,” Jacobs said. “I would like to use this as a call to reason, a call to for participation, a call to faith in each other. We’re all in this together.”
School starts at RBHS on Monday Aug. 17. During the first week students will attend school for only one day for three hours, spending 20 minutes in each class as a sort of introductory session.
That week will serve as sort of the dry run of what it will be like with students in the building, District 208 Superintendent Kevin Skinkis said.
The regular schedule will begin on Aug. 24. Nearly 90 percent of students have chosen the hybrid option. They will attend classes in person two days a week for a four-hour morning session and have the rest of their classes online.
Skinkis said 82 of the school’s 92 classrooms have been reconfigured to place students at least six feet away from each other, and that they are doing the best they can to configure the remaining 10 classrooms to maximize social distancing. Everyone inside the school will be required to wear a face covering.
Skinkis said that the administration will monitor the situation and the pandemic and make adjustments where needed. He said that the school is ready to quickly shift to 100-percent remote learning if conditions make that necessary.
“I don’t know anybody who can guarantee anything in this situation,” Skinkis said. “I can’t tell you that it’s perfect or that we’re not going to have any problem.”