Students returned to Riverside-Brookfield High School on Aug. 15 to begin the 2022-23 academic year with few COVID-19 mitigation protocols in effect despite the disease’s lingering presence. Masks were few and far between among both students and staff. All of the area’s schools largely will resume pre-pandemic operations when classes begin in the coming weeks. (Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer)

School is getting back to normal this year even as the COVID-19 pandemic stubbornly sticks around. As students returned to school Aug. 15 at Riverside-Brookfield High School, only a few students were still wearing face masks. 

Although masks are still officially “recommended” at Riverside-Brookfield High School one student estimated that about 95 percent of students and many teachers went maskless on the first day. One student the Landmark talked to said only a few students in each class were wearing masks.

“At least in my classes, I was one of two or three students that wore a mask,” said the student. 

Masks were required in Illinois public schools from when students returned to school from the pandemic during the 2021-22 school year until March 1, 2022, when Gov. J.B. Pritzker lifted his executive order requiring them. 

The mask mandate had become a lightning rod issue in many districts, especially at Lyons Township High School and Brookfield-LaGrange Park District 95. Once the mask requirement was lifted, students and staff gradually started to remove their masks, and it doesn’t seem likely that many students will be wearing masks at school this year.

RBHS is the first area school to begin the new academic year. School starts on Aug. 18 at Lyons-Brookfield School District 103 and begins next week at most other area school districts, although Komarek School students don’t have to return to school until Aug. 31.

At all area school districts, lunch will be back to pre-pandemic protocols, and physical distancing is no longer required anywhere. 

“Social distancing is no longer a thing,” said Riverside Elementary School District 96 Superintendent Martha Ryan-Toye said.

The main requirement remaining from the past two years is that if a student or staff member tests positive for COVID, that person will have to stay away from school for five consecutive calendar days following the positive test.

 In District 96, the person returning from a positive COVID test will also have to wear a face mask at school for days six through 10 after that positive test. 

COVID tests will be available for students and staff at RBHS.

“We have plenty of COVID tests here if any staff member or student needs to be tested,” said RBHS Principal Hector Freytas.

Other preventative measures such as upgraded air circulation systems remain in place.

“We still have the touchless hand washing stations, the bottle-filling stations, the hand sanitizers, the building’s maximizing HVAC air exchanges with UV filters,” Freytas said.

Despite new guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control last week no longer recommending COVID testing for asymptomatic individuals, two local school districts — Riverside Elementary District 96 and LaGrange-Brookfield School District 102 — will again offer optional COVID testing through weekly saliva samples. Those tests will again be collected and analyzed through SHIELD and are offered to schools free of charge by the state of Illinois. 

But as of Aug. 15, only 43 students in District 96 had been signed up for the saliva testing, although Ryan-Toye said that number will likely grow before school starts Aug. 24. 

Last year in District 96 families had to opt out of the saliva testing; this year they must opt in. Unlike last year, District 96 students who choose to participate will collect their saliva samples at home and bring them to school in vials to school instead of testing at school. 

“For now, I think there are families and staff members that feel safer and more secure with this option,” Ryan-Toye said of plans to still offer the saliva testing.

Under the new CDC guidance, students who were merely exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID will no longer have to quarantine. But school administrators note that all this could change if COVID cases spike and public health guidance changes.

“All of this could return,” Ryan-Toye said.