As Riverside Elementary School District 96 teachers prepare to be reunited with their students inside their classrooms for the first time since March, the faculty’s union leadership on Aug. 19 made clear that a solid majority of teachers did not support the school district’s hybrid in-person learning plan.

Riverside Education Council co-presidents Katie Kayastha and Jen Ohlman informed the school board that in a survey just days before last week’s school board meeting that 60.2 percent of District 96 teachers did not support the in-person learning plan.

According to Kayastha, who summarized the survey results for the school board, just 37.7 percent of teachers favored the district’s hybrid learning plan, which blends both in-person and remote instruction. The school district has also offered families an all-remote option, where students can attend the same classes as their schoolmates from home.

The Riverside Education Council conducted its first survey of teachers on Aug. 3, just prior to the school board approving the hybrid plan to start the 2020-21 school year. At that time, the union got a 76 percent response rate, which indicated that a slight majority of teachers – 52 percent – did not favor in-person learning, while 48 percent did.

The most recent survey, conducted early last week, received a 98-percent response rate, said Kayastha. The stronger opposition to the in-person option was fueled not only by more respondents to the survey, said Kayastha, but also by teachers who over the prior two weeks had changed their minds due to increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases locally and in suburban Chicago.

Fifty-two people who had previously said they were OK with in-person learning indicated that they no longer did, favoring fully remote learning instead.

Kayastha, student support coordinator at Hauser Junior High School, said 2.1 percent of teachers intended to take a leave of absence during the 2020-21 school year rather than risk being in classrooms with students amid a pandemic.

“As we know during these difficult times, people’s feelings and perspectives change,” Kayastha told the school board at the Aug. 19 meeting. “These changes are influenced by virus data, both in the District 96 community as well as the communities in which staff members reside, the closing of other educational institutions, situations in our own households and districts and other factors.”

Ohlman, a second-grade teacher at Ames School, offered the board teacher perspectives collected by the union, outlining their concerns about in-person learning.

First, she said, the positivity rate for new COVID-19 cases has been on the rise during the past month.

As of Aug. 19, suburban Cook County saw four days of positivity increases, with a positivity rate of 6.4 percent.

Ohlman acknowledged that the school’s plan “has been carefully crafted,” allowing the district to “seamlessly pivot from hybrid to remote.” Until Aug. 19’s meeting, however, teachers were unsure what metrics District 96 leaders would be using to make a decision to go fully remote.

Superintendent Martha Ryan-Toye earlier in the meeting announced that the district would be using data for all of suburban Cook County as its measure for when to pull the trigger on fully remote learning. 

According to the governor’s Restore Illinois plan, a regional positivity of 8 percent would trigger fully remote learning.

A number of families are also concerned about in-person learning, with 27.5 percent choosing the district’s all-remote option when the school year starts.

In response to an email from the Landmark, Kayastha and Ohlman said the purpose of the union’s presentation to the school board on Aug. 19 was to communicate its members’ feelings, but there was no indication the union will take further steps to force a remote start.

“As educators, we will do anything to maintain a nurturing environment where we challenge our students to reach their highest potential and are looking forward to a successful beginning of the school year,” Kayastha and Ohlman said in a joint response.