Families in Riverside School DIstrict 96 embraced the decision to move to full-day, in-person instruction as of April 12. About 78 percent of students, including these students in Christina Guastella’s second grade-class at Ames School, are now back in the classroom full-time, including many kids whose families had chosen remote-only learning previously. (Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer)

Last week classrooms were full for the first time this year in the four elementary schools in Riverside Elementary School District 96 as most students returned for full-day instruction for the first time since March 2020. 

On April 12, the four elementary schools in District 96 began a modified full-day, in-person schedule for the first time.

Kids and parents alike were excited about the return to full day school.

Hollywood School second-grader Isabelle Hlavaty was excited to see friends that she hadn’t seen all year.

“Friends that haven’t been there all year came back,” said Isabelle’s mother, Jenni Hlavaty. “She got to see some of her friends that she hasn’t been able to see, so she was like super excited.”

Although many kids are back in classrooms, there are still some concessions to the pandemic, as evidenced by this art class at Ames School, where students receive instruction via Zoom. (Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer)

Isabelle Hlavaty was also excited that she got to sit at a table in her classroom with a classmate instead of sitting at a separate desk. Nearby was a new boy in her class, who had attended Central School and had been doing remote learning until now.

That boy was one of 73 students switching from remote learning to in-person attendance because of the switch to full-day instruction. Only five students switched from hybrid instruction to 100-percent remote learning, because families apparently were concerned about the reduction in social distancing from six feet to three that made full day school possible. 

Overall 78.2 percent of elementary school students in District 96 are now going to school in person all day, while 21.5 percent still attend school remotely.

Most class sizes doubled, because under the hybrid model used prior to last week individual classes were split in two — with half the class attending in the morning and the other half in the afternoon to maintain six feet of social distancing. 

Students in Christina Duve’s fourth-grade class go over an assignment on April 19 at Ames Elementary School in Riverside. (Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer)

The morning and afternoon classes were merged for full-day instruction, so most students stayed with the teacher they have been with all year.

“We really want to minimize the change for everybody, but especially for our children,” said District 96 Superintendent Martha Ryan-Toye.

The largest class in District 96 is a 26-student second grade class at Central School, which also has two classes of 25 students each. Ames School has three classes of 24 students each and three more of 23 students. 

District 96 has hired five long-term substitute teachers to act as aides in the largest classes. One new section of 13 first grade students at Ames School was created to accommodate children switching from remote instruction to in-person learning. That section is being taught by Judy Dickerson, who is has a long-term substitute teacher credential and had been working for District 96 as a paraprofessional.

It is costing the district about $7,000 each for each of the five new hires. Business Manager Jim Fitton said he expects the district will be able to use federal money from recent stimulus packages to reimburse the district for the approximately $35,000 it is costing to hire the additional staff to help with in-person learning.

The change to full-day, in-person school was made after number of parents pushed for it following a survey that showed that most parents wanted children back in the classroom.

“This is what our parents wanted,” Ryan-Toye said. “This is what our parents were asking for.”

Fourth grade teacher Christina Duve goes over an assignment with the students on April 19, during class at A. F. Ames Elementary School. (Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer)

Elementary school students are now attending school from 8:20 a.m. until 10:50 a.m. when they break 80 minutes for lunch. They return to school at 1:10 p.m. and are in school until 2:55 p.m.

At the school district’s request most students are going home for lunch.

“Parents have been wonderful in terms of their responsiveness,” Ryan-Toye said.

At the Central School between 15 and 18 kids have been staying at school for lunch while 16 students have been staying at school for lunch at Ames School. At the district’s smaller elementary schools, Blythe Park and Hollywood, only a handful of kids are staying at school for lunch. 

Kids who stay at school for lunch typically eat outside if the weather is nice. If the weather is bad they eat indoors while remaining at least six feet apart. The district is providing sack lunches for all kids who want them, whether they go home for lunch or not.

Students in Amelia Workman’s first grade art class work on a project at their desks on April 19, during class at A. F. Ames Elementary School. (Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer)

The return to full-day, in-person instruction seems to have gone smoothly, but it initially took some time for students to adjust to a longer school day.

“It’s like getting back on a new bike,” said Hollywood School Principal Kim Hefner. “You shift gears a little differently. You might have more gears. But at the end of the week it was so familiar.”

Things also went well at Ames School. Students were excited to finally be able to play on the new playground built last summer.

“The kids were very excited to see some of their classmates that they haven’t had the chance to be in school with for over a year now,” Ames Principal Todd Gierman said in an email after the first day of full day school on April 12. “The kids were especially excited that today was the first day our students were able to enjoy the new Ames playground during the school day. We opened up the playground today for the first time. Each classroom gets 15 minutes of recess on the playground every day. Overall, the day was a success for students and staff.”

But perhaps most excited of all for the return of full day school were parents. 

“Oh my God, liberated,” said Central School parent Jennifer Fournier when asked about how she felt about the return of full-day school. 

Since Fournier works in the Arcade Building in downtown Riverside, her twin third-graders just walk to their mother’s office with their sack lunches and eat with her on most days.

Even more excited might be Nick Fournier, the father of the twins who supervised the kids for much of the time when they were only going to school in person for half the day. 

“He really took the brunt of it,” Jennifer Fournier said of her husband. “He’s so excited to get his life back.”