Lyons Township High School students show school spirit during their all-school assembly with 4,000 students in the North Campus Fieldhouse on Friday, April 22nd in LaGrange. (Shanel Romain/Contributor)

Just two months ago school officials across the state were still wrestling with the need for masking inside school buildings as COVID-19 cases started dropping sharply and pressure increased to drop the mandates.

In a sign of just how quickly things have changed, more and more school districts are returning to building environments that more closely resemble the pre-pandemic normal – even if the pandemic hasn’t disappeared and there are signs that local case rates may be ticking up.

One of the most vivid illustrations of that shift in thinking played out April 22, when for the first time since 2019 Lyons Township High School staged an all-district assembly, held indoors in the North Campus fieldhouse.

Unthinkable just three months ago, students from South Campus packed into nearly 40 buses and streamed into the fieldhouse where the entire 4,000-student body – the vast majority unmasked –stood shoulder to shoulder, cheering on classmates competing against one another in games like tug o’ war or applauding numbers performed by the marching band, color guard and Steppers.

While the all-school assembly might have a been a special one-off event this school year, other school districts are changing policies that have been in place for more than two years and sought to limit direct contact between students.

One school period where school administrators had taken pains to keep students apart during the pandemic was lunch. But, lunch is getting back to normal at Brook Park School in LaGrange Park as well as at other local elementary schools. 

Students at Brook Park School can now eat lunch at traditional lunch tables (background) or at the individual tables prevalent during the height of the pandemic. More and more, administrators are adapting policies to move to a more “normal” school environment. | BOB SKOLNIK/Contributor

Last week students at Brook Park were able to eat at lunch tables for the first time this school year. Prior to April 18, Brook Park students had to eat lunch at individual seats lined up in a physically distanced row. Now kids have the option to sit around the lunch table with their friends for the first time since March 2020.

“It feels like things are getting back to normal which kind of feels refreshing,” said Brook Park fifth-grader Lucy Radziwon. “It feels good to get back into somewhat of a normal school year. I’m happy because this is my last year at Brook Park.”

Other Brook Park fifth graders agreed.

“It’s very enjoyable,” said Thomas Tselepis about being back at a lunch table. “It’s very nice to sit with my friends a lot closer now and it’s overall better. All of my friends can sit together and we don’t have to have, like, six different seats.” 

Brook Park students sitting at lunch tables don’t have to keep any particular distance away from each other. They can, and often do sit, shoulder to shoulder.

Brook Park students still have the option to still sit in individual seats, but by the end of last week the only a few Brook Park students were not sitting at the lunch tables.

“I think the best thing about this is that we’re giving kids the choice,” said Brook Park K-2 Principal Kelly King.

But students don’t yet have a choice at S.E. Gross Middle School, which like Brook Park is part of Brookfield-LaGrange Park District 95. At S.E. Gross, students still eat lunch in their individual seats and will do so for the remainder of the school year. 

Principal Ryan Evans said that he decided not to significantly change the seating arrangements for the final six weeks of the school year.

“Consistency is important with kids,” Evans said.

However, Evans said students now do have more freedom to move their individual seats together in pods and to move about the lunchroom.

Rules have also been relaxed in Riverside Elementary School District 96, which was one of the last local school districts to drop its masking policy. Students are now expected to remain at least three feet apart, down from the six-foot rule in effect for most of the school year. 

Because of the change, District 96 students are now mostly eating lunch at tables in lunchrooms rather than having some kids eating lunch in hallways as was the case at the Central and Ames schools until recently. 

Central School is using both its new multipurpose room and the school’s gym for lunch, but the other elementary schools are back to mostly using one room for lunch.

“It’s more normal than it’s been all school year,” said District 96 Superintendent Martha Ryan Toye.

There has been no change in lunch seating arrangements at Komarek School in North Riverside even after students have moved into the just completed new building at Komarek.

“We’ve essentially just moved our students from our old cafeteria to the new cafeteria,” said Komarek superintendent Todd Fitzgerald. “We’ve kept the same seating arrangement which is rows and columns — students eating at TV trays being socially distant at least three feet or more.”

Face masks are becoming rare in local schools. The face mask mandate ended in early March and only a few students and teachers are still wearing masks in school.

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But as social distancing rules are being relaxed, COVID cases are creeping up again with the emergence of the new BA.2 omicron variant of the virus after a steep decline in February and March.

District 96 has reported 39 cases of COVID (34 students and five staff) thus far in April compared to only nine cases in all of March.

“We continue to reflect what’s going on in society in general, and there is some uptick,” Ryan-Toye said. “We’re not hearing that kids are terribly ill. Kids that are being picked up are often on our saliva testing, so they’re pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic. This isn’t over yet.”

Fifteen students and one staff member tested positive for COVID-19 in Brookfield- LaGrange Park District 95 last week. Riverside-Brookfield High School has reported 20 cases (12 students and 8 staff) thus far in April compared to only four cases in all of March. Komarek School has reported six cases (two student and four staff) this month compared to just one case in March.

And, at Lyons Township High School, officials reported that for the weeklong period from April 15-21 – ending the before the all-school assembly – seven students and 12 staff tested positive for COVID-19. 

From April 1-14, the school had reported four student and three staff cases.