The return to hybrid learning at Riverside-Brookfield High School was met with less than overwhelming enthusiasm last week. 

Only about 28 percent of students went to school in person as classroom instruction resumed on Jan. 5. It was the first opportunity most students had to attend school in person since RBHS switched back to a fully remote learning model after COVID cases skyrocketed across the state in November.

“The numbers are close to what we expected for our first week back,” said District 208 Superintendent Kevin Skinkis in an email. “I would anticipate that in-person attendance will continue to improve as we continue under the 50-percent model.  Our teachers did a great job.”

School board President Wes Smithing, who has pushed hard for a return to in person learning, said that he thought in-person attendance would increase as the semester wore on.

“I’m actually excited that that many kids came,” Smithing said. “I think next week you’ll see more, and after the MLK holiday I think we’ll see a pickup. I think there’s some apprehension with coming back and I understand that.”

Students at RBHS can now attend class in person twice a week. On Jan. 5, 206 students were in school, with 233 on Jan. 6 and roughly 220 the two days following that. 

Those whose last names begin with the letters A through K can attend school in person on Tuesdays and Thursdays, while L through Z can attend Wednesdays and Fridays. 

One student who attended class in person said the experience was better than it had been when classrooms were open for a few weeks in October, one day a week.

“I didn’t see a drastic difference in the amount of students who were there,” said RBHS senior Michael Ciszewski. “It was still like two to three students in all of my classes. 

“I think that what changed a lot was how the teachers are educating us now,” he added. “They’re focused more on the students in class. … We’ll be able to see what the teacher is showing us instead of us having to be on our Chromebooks and having our earbuds in. It’s a lot more engaging, I would say.”

Senior Tess Obuchowski stayed home last week and is staying home this week. 

“It was just safer for me to stay at home,” said Obuchowski, who does come to school in the afternoon to practice for her role in the spring musical. “Especially after New Year’s Eve, there were a lot of people who were out and about, and I wanted to make sure I avoided that spike, because going to school is just another thing that might risk exposure.”

Obuchowski said she feels safer coming to school for play rehearsals because it’s involves a relatively small group of students who, she says, are careful about wearing masks and maintaining social distancing. She hopes to return to school later in the semester if positive tests go down.

“There is pretty high likelihood that I will go back,” Obuchowski said.

Skinkis made the decision to return to the hybrid model even though the metrics were conflicting. The test positivity rate in suburban Cook County (9.9 percent) and the new cases rate (302 cases per 100,000) were still in the substantial range, but new cases and youth cases have dropped into the minimal category. Three RBHS students have already tested positive for COVID-19 since the second semester started earlier this month.

Skinkis said it is up to individual students and families to decide whether to attend school in person.

“We provide families an option so that they can do what they feel comfortable [with],” Skinkis told the Landmark in a telephone interview.

Smithing said his two children, a senior and a freshman, both went to school in person last week.

“All the educators will tell you that in-person learning is the best environment,” Smithing said. 

Smithing said he was pleased that teachers are trying to engage the students who are there in person and not just presenting a Zoom class to them.

“Some of the most vocal teachers within the [teachers’ union] about not coming back have turned around and are doing it the best,” Smithing said. “It just shows that they are stepping up to the plate. We’re at least getting the engagement that we’ve been asking for.”