Lyons-Brookfield School District 103 Administration Building, 4100 Joliet Ave., Lyons

Many parents in Lyons-Brookfield School District 103 are unhappy that their children apparently won’t have the opportunity to attend school in person this year, except to take mandated tests. 

A number of them made their feelings known at the March 23 school board meeting, submitting public comments by email or over the telephone because in-person attendance at school board meetings is still limited to 10 people, including school board members and administrators. 

“I’m wondering, how has every other school district in our surrounding towns managed to figure this out, yet our school district can’t seem to find a solution for in-person learning?” asked parent Jennifer Manzanarez in her emailed comment that was read at the school board meeting.

Heidi Garza, the mother of Home School fifth-grader, also couldn’t understand why District 103 is still limited to remote learning while other area school districts have offered part-time, in-person learning all year or have switched to full- or part-time in-person school this spring.

“I do not understand how a plan for in-person testing was put together in a short period of time, but a plan for a hybrid option wasn’t ready after being out of school for over a year,” Garza wrote in her emailed comment. “If the leaders are having such a difficult time figuring things out, then did they reach out to any of the surrounding districts for help since they all are or will be back? Our kids deserve better.”

Frustrated parents have formed a new Facebook group, District 103 Parents United, which had 71 members eight days after it was created on March 21.

After the school board meeting, Superintendent Kristopher Rivera said the district had been in the midst of working on a blended model that included some in-person school attendance when the district found out that state and federally mandated testing has to be done in person. 

That testing, which includes the Illinois Assessment of Readiness test (IAR), will be done in April and May. The complexity of figuring out how to safely get students in the schools for testing while maintaining social distancing guidelines disrupted plans to create a blended learning model, Rivera said.

Rivera said that some type of in-person school could still happen this year, especially for first- and second-graders who don’t take the IAR test.

Another reason District 103 has not had any in-person school this year, Rivera said, is that the district and the teachers’ union agreed at the start of the school on metrics that would trigger a three-week process to implement a hybrid learning plan with some in school attendance. 

Metrics included having a new COVID case rate of less than less 50 new cases per 100,000 people in a week for each of the communities the district serves and a positivity test level of less than 5 percent. Hitting those metrics would trigger the process to implement a hybrid learning plan. 

District 103 has not yet hit all of those metrics. The 50 weekly new cases per 100,000 benchmark has proved to be a particularly tough target to hit. 

For the week ending March 27, the weekly new case rate in Brookfield was 106.4 cases per 100,000 and in Lyons it was 143 per 100,000. The positivity rate was 3.61 percent in Brookfield, was but 7.69 percent in Lyons.

By the end of April, all District 103 teachers will have had the opportunity to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 through a vaccination program for educators at Morton High School. 

Rivera said the metrics that were agreed upon at the beginning of the year were still in force, even if they now might not be the best metrics to use now.

“We bargained that back in the fall,” Rivera said. “We trusted the CDC. We didn’t understand it, but we bargained it and we committed to it.”

Rivera was asked if the teachers’ union was an impediment to returning to some form of in person school. 

“Absolutely not, and you can put exclamation marks on that,” Rivera said.

During the school board meeting, Rivera said teachers have ample reason to take COVID seriously and to be cautious about teaching in person. 

“We have staff members who have lost loved ones,” Rivera said, noting that school children have not been vaccinated.

Toni Jackman, the president of the District 103 teachers’ union, said it is up to administrators to develop return to school plans.

“The administrative team has the job of surveying the parents, communicating with the community and ensuring that a safe environment is in place for children and staff to return,” Jackman wrote in a text message to the Landmark. “This includes building setup and safety protocols, and communicating that plan to the union for discussion and review.”

Jackman said the union has worked with the administrators throughout the year. Many memoranda of understanding have been negotiated and agreed to by the district and the union.

All this leaves many parents frustrated.

“I feel like the metrics are set at almost impossible to reach,” said Kristin Salgado in her public comment at the school board meeting. “This is not only hurting our children’s education but their mental well-being.”

In an email to the Landmark, Salgado noted that elementary school students in the city of Chicago now have the option to attend school in person.

“Schools all over are going back to in-person learning, at least hybrid learning,” Salgado wrote. “I am not sure why even Chicago schools can go back, but we can’t. … My kids are in third, fourth and seventh grade. I feel like this is a wasted school year and I can only hope they will be at the same level as their peers in high school, especially my 7th grader.”