Schools in Riverside Elementary School District 96 will open their doors to students as planned on Jan. 4 despite a plea from its teachers union to delay a return to classrooms for two weeks. 

Nearly 60 percent of teachers oppose students returning to school in person on Jan. 4, according to a union survey. All District 96 students, except for a handful of special education students, have been attending classes remotely since Nov. 30 to guard against a possible surge in COVID cases after Thanksgiving.

Superintendent Marth Ryan-Toye said it is important for the schools to reopen for those who want to send their kids to school. This fall, approximately 70 percent of District 96 students had been attending school in person on a hybrid schedule. 

“We’ve made a commitment to our students and to our families that January 4 is the date, and we really believe our schools are safe,” Ryan Toye said. “I know there are varying viewpoints on that, but it’s important, I think, for our children to get back to school and families to get back to that structure and that opportunity, at least for those, who want it.”

At the Dec. 16 school board meeting, which was held virtually on Zoom, the co-presidents of the teachers’ union, the Riverside Education Council, asked the school board to consider delaying the return to in-person instruction to guard against an increase in cases following Christmas.

“The official position of the Riverside Education Council is to delay the return from our adaptive pause until 10 to 14 days into the New Year,” said co-president Katie Kayastha, who is student services coordinator at Hauser Jr. High School. “We appeal to the board to consider this option for the health and safety of students and staff.”

The school board did not discuss the request, at least during open session, during its meeting.

“Under the return-to-learn plan that was passed in the summer, the authority to have schools in session or to close them rests with the superintendent, at least until the board decides otherwise,” said school board President Dan Hunt, adding that he listened to what the REC leaders said with great interest.

The union co-presidents said that only 21.8 percent of teachers favored returning to in-person instruction on Jan. 4, with another 19.9 percent uncertain about returning on that date. 

Meanwhile, 58.3 percent opposed returning to in-person instruction on Jan. 4, with 80 percent of teachers favoring a return to in-person instruction after a two-week delay at the start of the month.

The co-presidents read statements by two teachers, Hauser teacher Jennie Popovic and Central and Hollywood School teacher Patty Dost, explaining why they favor a delay in returning to in-person instruction.

“As long as there are such high numbers of COVID in the community, we are unable to provide a guarantee that it is being kept out of the schools,” Popovic wrote in her statement. “I worry about my students, their families and all of the District 96 staff. At this point, I would guess that most of us know someone who has suffered illness or death because of COVID. If we can help decrease these numbers, why wouldn’t we?”

District 96 will start offering saliva screening tests to students and staff beginning on Jan. 4. To date, about 583 students or nearly 60 percent of those attending school in person have signed up for the voluntary COVID-19 screening. About 70 percent of district staff have also signed up for the saliva tests.

“We’d really like those numbers to increase,” Ryan-Toye said.

Some staff members have already started the saliva screening tests. On Dec. 17, two staff members, one at Ames School and one at Central School, had clinically significant test results indicating the presence of the novel coronavirus in their system.

Ryan-Toye sent a holiday message to families on Dec. 18 asking that they quarantine for 14 days if they travel out of state or out of the country during the winter break.

Hunt said he believes it is safe for students to return to school in person on Jan. 4.

“With the saliva screening combined with the protocols that are in place right now and that there’s been no in-school transmission, I personally feel very comfortable with the schools opening on [Jan. 4] and I believe that they can be safe,” Hunt said.