Just a few hours before top Riverside-Brookfield High School officials made the decision to abruptly switch plans Friday and start the school year with 100-percent remote learning, the teachers made a big statement as they entered the building Friday morning for an institute day.

The teachers first gathered in the parking lot and then entered en masse at around 7:55 a.m., determined to show that the RBHS system for screening those entering the building was not adequate to deal with hundreds of students who would be entering the building daily if the district kept its plan to have students attend in person. 

Teachers strongly opposed a school board-approved plan that blended in-person and remote learning out of concern for their safety in the midst of the continuing coronavirus pandemic. 

Before the Aug. 11 school board meeting where the hybrid plan was unanimously adopted, a large group of teachers rallied in front of the school, calling for a fully remote start to the school year. 

After the school board voted to adopt that plan, the teachers union, the Riverside Brookfield Education Association (RBEA), decided that stronger action was required.

As they entered the building Friday morning for their second institute day of the new school year and approached the required temperature checks, teachers refused to read the COVID-19 symptom placard and demanded that the symptoms to be read aloud to them. 

One teacher reportedly demanded that the symptoms be read to him in Spanish. A couple teachers reported having symptoms and one was taken to an isolation room. With this slowdown, it took about 25 minutes for 100-plus teachers to enter the building.

RBEA President Dan Bonarigo, a math teacher, said teachers were trying to follow the rules and their contract, but they also wanted to simulate what it would be like for large numbers of students, some of whom do not speak much English, to enter the building if students were allowed to attend school in person.

“We were worried about the logistics of that process, and I think the administration was able to see that the logistics of that process were more than we had originally thought,” Bonarigo said.

One parent who had a firsthand report of what happened at the school Friday morning had a different reaction to what the teachers did.

“I just find the way the teachers went about this to be deplorable,” said a RBHS parent who asked not to be identified because she did not want to jeopardize their child’s relationship with her teachers. “They acted more juvenile than our kids do. They threw a temper tantrum and derailed the system.”

Bonarigo took exception to the teachers’ antics being called juvenile.

“The teachers were supporting the more cautious and safe approach to opening school,” Bonarigo said. “I don’t think that advocating for safety above all else would be considered juvenile.”

RBHS Principal Hector Freytas declined to answer specific questions about the how the teachers acted when they entered the building Friday morning.

“I don’t want to focus on what the teachers did or did not do,” Freytas said in an email. “They are good teachers. I’d rather the community be upset at me. I don’t want the students and families to have any misconceptions about our teachers. At the end of the day, all the teachers wanted is for our students to learn safely, and I admire them for that.”  

Some school board members, however, were more critical of the teachers’ actions.

“They were out in their lawn chair [before heading into the building en masse],” said District 208 board President Wes Smithing said. “It was a planned endeavor.”

Smithing said that most in the community wanted to return to the in-person instruction to the extent practical, noting that nearly 88 percent of students chose the hybrid model.

“The union is not listening to the community,” Smithing said.  “The union gave us an all-remote plan through the committee. The committee is primarily made up of union members. They gave us a plan with two-and-a-half hours of instruction on a Friday, and that’s unacceptable to the board.”

Board member Laura Hruska was disappointed with the switch to all-remote learning which was made on Friday by District 208 Superintendent Kevin Skinkis after consulting with Smithing and some, but not all, board members.

“It’s not what the students or the parents wanted,” Hruska said.

RBHS sophomore Veronica Hunt was not happy about the switch to all-remote learning, but hoped that it would be better than last spring.

“I’m a little disappointed about it,” Hunt said. “I do understand that we have to do what’s safest. I’m going to try to do my best to be optimistic about the change of plan. I am a little worried about the remote learning, but I think that RB is going to be able to pull it off better than last time.”

Unlike last spring, the remote learning plan this year is going to require teachers and students to be online together at specified time periods. The plan is being revised after school board members wanted a more robust plan than the one unveiled at the Aug. 11 school board meeting. 

Under that plan students would attend classes online with their teachers present from 9:35 a.m. until 2:05 p.m. on Mondays, for 3.5 hours on Tuesday and Thursdays, and for about 2.5 hours on Wednesdays and Fridays. Each class period would meet online three times a week.

The administration and the RBEA are meeting this week to try and work out a more robust remote schedule. 

“Now that we are going fully remote, my number one  priority is that students don’t feel isolated, that they are fully engaged and continue to receive rigorous coursework that they are accustomed to getting by our excellent RB teachers,” Freytas said in an email. “We are adding more hours to our fully remote instructional model, continuing many extracurricular activities virtually and in-person, and doing more well-being checks either in person through home visits or online.”

RBHS students are coming to school in person this week for one half-day orientation session spread over four days. Less than 13 percent of the total student body will be in the building at the same time. 

The remote schedule will begin on Aug. 24. All remote classes will be taught by RBHS faculty. With the decision to go to fully remote learning for at least the entire first quarter, the administration has scrapped plans to outsource remote learning to a third-party provider.

Skinkis said the decision to switch to all-remote learning was made in response to revised guidelines from the Illinois Department of Public Health that were issued on Aug. 12. The day after those guidelines were issued, high schools in Hinsdale District 86 and Downers Grove scrapped their hybrid plans for the fall and switched to all-remote instruction. But RBHS did not make the same move until after the teachers’ action on Friday morning.

Smithing maintained that what happened Friday morning is not what made the school to switch to all remote learning.

“We ultimately made the decision based on the governor’s and the state mandate,” Smithing said. “That is the ultimate reason. We didn’t make it because of the union.”

Despite the changed guidelines, three local elementary school districts, Riverside District 96, Brookfield-LaGrange Park District 95 and LaGrange-Brookfield School District 102, say that they are continuing with their plans to offer partial in person instruction to students when their school year starts.

“We’re moving forward,” said District 95 Superintendent Mark Kuzniewski. 

The first day of school in District 95 is Aug. 24.

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