When the second semester at Riverside-Brookfield High School starts on Jan. 5, officials are planning to allow students to attend school in person twice a week. However, students who don’t want to come to school will still have the option to continue remote learning.
“We are going to bring students back second semester,” RBHS Principal Hector Freytas said at the Dec. 8 meeting of the District 208 Board of Education. “We’ve invited students back and I know we’re going to do an even better job second semester.”
RBHS will remain in 100-percent remote learning posture for the rest of the first semester, which ends on Dec. 18. Despite record-high rates of COVID cases, administrators are feeling pressure from some parents and school board members to get students back on campus.
Five parents spoke during the public comment portion of the board meeting, imploring the board to resume in-person instruction. One parent and one student spoke in favor of keeping students home for remote learning while the pandemic is raging.
“I believe our students belong in school,” said Rory Dominick, the mother of a freshman. “I believe they should be in school right now.”
Dominick told the school board that students are suffering from social isolation, which is impacting their mental health.
“These kids are isolated, they are alone and they are sad, and we are teetering on a depression pandemic,” Dominick said. “The return to in-person learning is crucial.”
Dominick and others who spoke in favor of resuming in-person learning said they believe attending school is safe.
Cathy Daun, the mother of two students, said other schools have been open for in-person student attendance since RBHS has switched to full remote on Nov. 13 after only three weeks of a one-day-a-week hybrid option during the first semester.
“We need our teachers to get back on campus and teach children how they were taught pre-COVID,” Daun said. “Millions of students and tens of thousands of teachers are safely back in schools in the country already. Why should our district be expected to behave differently?”
Lyons Township High School also switched to remote learning on Nov. 13, but it resumed its twice-a-week hybrid schedule on Dec. 7.
Only 42 percent of LTHS students chose to attend class in person during the week of Dec. 7, said Jennifer Bialobok, the community relations coordinator for LTHS.
“I would anticipate that participation in in-person learning will go up again after the winter break,” Bialobok said.
Julie Stack, the mother of an RBHS student, works as a paraprofessional at Brook Park Elementary School in La Grange Park and said the hybrid plan there has worked well, with most students attending school in person for half days, five days a week.
“The hybrid model can be successful,” Stack said. “And for many remote students, they returned in October to be in hybrid at Brook Park. We all feel safe, we feel supported, we’re wearing masks. … We’re doing what we need to do to be in school because it makes us happy, it gives us purpose. I see it every day. It brings me joy.”
Daun criticized the school board for not insisting on more in-person instruction.
“The only people truly letting us down are you guys,” Daun told the school board. “You’ve been bullied by the teachers union and it’s time for you, our elected officials, to stand up and advocate for our children to get them back on campus full time.”
Not everyone who spoke at the school board favored a return to in-person learning in the midst of a raging pandemic. During the first week of December, 10 RBHS students tested positive for COVID-19 and another 12 students were told to quarantine. One staff member also tested positive for COVID-19.
RBHS junior Claire Harrison said she has done well with remote learning and doesn’t feel it is safe to return to school yet.
“The coronavirus is very much real and is not going away,” Harrison told the school board. “In Illinois, deaths and new cases are at an all-time high. As much as I would love to attend normal school, there is nothing normal about getting a ‘Hunger Games’ style list of how many new people have COVID nearly every night. I understand that we are living in unprecedented times. However, my life is not something I am willing to gamble to reach milestones in in-person instruction.”
District 208 Superintendent Kevin Skinkis and Freytas said they are working with teachers to make instruction during the second semester more interactive and traditional than it was during the three weeks this fall when RBHS students could attend class in person once a week.
Many students complained then that it was not worth it to go to school to just be on Zoom. Few students attended classes in person.
“The goal is to increase student and teacher interaction second semester,” Skinkis said.
Freytas admitted that trying to teach to students in a classroom and at home at the same time has been challenging for teachers.
“This is new for everybody,” Freytas said. “We’re only going to get better at this, so I just ask that you continue to give us time and patience to prepare and execute.”