Beginning on April 12 elementary school students in Riverside District 96 will have the option of attending school in person on a modified full-day schedule.

Despite the opposition of most of the district’s elementary school teachers, the District 96 Board of Education signed off Wednesday evening on the administration’s plan to move to a full-day schedule with 80 minutes off for lunch.

Most students will be expected to go home for lunch, although special arrangements will be made for those who can’t. Nearly 80 percent of parents said in a survey that they could have their children home for lunch.

The school day at the district’s four elementary schools will start at 8:20 a.m. Students will break for lunch at 10:50 a.m. and return to school at 12:10 p.m. The school days will end at 2:55 p.m.

Families will continue to have the option for their children to attend school remotely if they wish, but the current half-day hybrid option will end. Parents are being asked to decide by April 1 on an option.

Currently about 17 percent of elementary school students in District 96 attend school remotely, but 34 percent of those families said that they were interested in returning to in-person attendance if the school day was extended.

Students in each teacher’s morning and afternoon hybrid classes will be combined into one all day class with social distancing between students reduced from six feet to three. The Illinois Department of Public Health and the Illinois State Board of Education recently reduced its social distancing guidelines for masked students, allowing school districts the flexibility to switch to full-day school, Superintendent Martha Ryan-Toye said.

The district is making the change in response to pressure from many parents to offer to full-day school. In a recent survey, 76.7 percent of parents said they were comfortable with reducing social distancing to three feet.

However, most teachers were uncomfortable with the reduction in social distancing. In a survey conducted by the Riverside Education Council, the teachers union, completed before the IDPH changed their guidelines, 75.55 percent of elementary school teachers were against changing the social distancing guidelines.

Four District 96 elementary school teachers spoke during the public comment portion of the school board meeting, asking the school board not to change the district’s current hybrid model of instruction. 

“I do not believe that changing schedules with weeks of the school year left would be best for kids,” said Kelly Lyson, a fourth-grade teacher at Central School, the school she attended as child.

Second-grade teacher Kristen Economos became emotional when she asked the school board not to change a schedule that was working for kids.

“I feel that D96 has established a schedule that is helping students navigate through this pandemic,” Economos said. “The students know what to expect and to uproot their schedule and routine this late in the school year would truly be a disservice.”

Teachers also expressed concerns about larger classes. The largest combined class would probably be 27 students at Central School. That class would probably be moved to a bigger room and a co-teacher or aide would be added to help out.

Ryan-Toye said the district would try to hire three to five additional teachers as long-term substitutes for the final eight weeks of the school year to help out in larger classes.

Students who switch from remote to in-person learning would be assigned to the smallest classes available and would not be guaranteed to attend their home school for the rest of the school year. The only students who would have to change teachers would be students switching from remote or in-person instruction, Ryan-Toye said.

After the meeting the co-presidents of the REC said teachers would do their best to make the new model work.

“The District 96 staff always wants what’s best for our students,” said co-presidents Jen Ohlman and Katie Kayastha in an email. “Regardless of any changes or the learning model, the teachers and staff will ensure a successful and positive conclusion to our school year.”

Before the start of the school year, 51 percent of District 96 teachers opposed any in-person learning.

One parent spoke during the public comment portion of the school board meeting supporting the longer school day.

Lia Pusko, the mother of a first-grader, said that she teaches in a school that has had full-day, in-person instruction since August and said that it has worked well. She said she was confident that District 96 could make it work. She added that the hybrid model was not working for her daughter.

“This hybrid option makes it difficult to provide structure to my daughter and other students who need in-school learning to keep up with the required curriculum and do not benefit from a class via Zoom,” Pusko said.

Six of the seven school board members supported the plan while one, Shari Klyber, a former teacher, wanted more information. Klyber said that she was encouraged by what she heard.

“I personally would love to hear more about the teacher concerns and what we’re going to do to support them,” Klyber said. “I’m looking forward to learning more but it seems encouraging at this point so we’ll see what happens in the next few weeks and we’ll see what the parents are feeling and the staff.”

There are tradeoffs, but I think on balance this will be good for our students.

Jeff Miller, D96 board member

Board member Jeff Miller acknowledged there were downsides to the change and wished that the longer school day would start before April 12, but he supported the change.

“I think it is a good step forward,” Miller said. “There are tradeoffs, but I think on balance this will be good for our students.”

School board President Dan Hunt also favored the change to full-day school.

“I think, with the amount of time left in the year, it is worth it,” Hunt said. “It is something we can and should do for the kids, so I’m definitely in favor.”

Board member Lynda Murphy also favored the shift to all-day school, but she wanted the teachers to know that the board understood their concerns.

“I want to make sure that they are being heard and we completely understand that,” Murphy said.

Ryan-Toye said the increased in-person instruction was worth doing for the rest of the school year.

“Eight weeks of instruction feels significant to me,” Ryan-Toye said.

Hybrid option expanded at Hauser Jr. High

Since March 5, nearly 400 students at L.J. Hauser Junior High School in Riverside have been attending school in person for four days week. 

Hauser modified its hybrid schedule this month to give students the option of attending school in person four days a week after attending school in person twice a week for most of the school year. 

Some 387 Hauser students took advantage of the opportunity to go the school more often, with only 14 students choosing to continue to attend school in person twice a week. 

Twenty-six Hauser students switched from remote learning to attend school in person, while 169 students continue to attend school remotely.

Students attending Hauser in person are at the school from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Then they go home for lunch but are expected to be online from 2 to 3 p.m. to get help from teachers, ask questions or do homework. However, many students are apparently not getting online at 2 p.m. 

At the March 17 school board meeting, Hauser Principal April Mahy reminded parents that students are expected to be online from 2 to 3 p.m. Wednesdays continue to be a remote learning day for all Hauser students.

Some adjustments have been made to maintain social distancing with increased numbers of students in the building. The library has been divided into two spaces that are being used as classrooms. The auditorium is also being used as a classroom.

Mahy told the school board that the switch to having more students in the building has gone well.

“It’s been a great feeling, because it is closer to normal,” Mahy said.

Clubs and a couple of sports, basketball and volleyball, have also resumed on a limited basis. Hauser teams will not compete in person against other schools, though. A virtual musical will be performed this spring.

Bob Skolnik