By Bob Skolnik
UPDATED: Friday. Nov. 13 at 3:07 p.m.
Riverside-Brookfield High School District 208 Superintendent Kevin Skinkis announced in an email to families on Nov. 13 that the school would be moving to all-remote instruction for at least the next two weeks due to the recent rapid increase in COVID-19 cases in suburban Cook County.
According to Skinkis, a decision on whether to return to a hybrid learning model that blends both in-person and remote learning for the week of Nov. 30, immediately following Thanksgiving break, will be communicated to families on Nov. 27.
"Please note that all plans are subject to change in response to new or revised requirements from the Illinois State Board of Education or the Illinois Department of Public Health," Skinkis wrote. "Please continue to wear your mask, practice social distancing, and practice proper hand hygiene."
In his email, Skinkis noted that the school would continue to follow its second quarter schedule and times "to provide consistency and fluidity in the decision-making process."
"Virtual instruction on Mondays may be synchronous or asynchronous based on the individual teacher and that specific class period," Skinkis wrote. "Teachers have been encouraged to use synchronous instruction as much as possible during remote learning; however, if a lesson is asynchronous, the teacher will be available to answer questions and provide support to students during the class period."
In the wake of skyrocketing COVID-19 cases in suburban Cook County, officials at Lyons Township High School announced they were shifting next week to fully remote learning for at least the next three weeks while Riverside-Brookfield High School may follow with a similar announcement as early as Friday.
"The sharp increases in cases per day, positivity rates, and number of new cases per 100,000 within LT's ZIP codes, and the impact this has caused on staffing our classrooms and cleaning our facilities is concerning," LTHS Superintendent Tim Kilrea said in a message sent to parents on Nov. 12. "In addition, we are also extremely concerned with upcoming expected travel plans and holiday gatherings and their impact on our school environment and community metrics related to the transmission of COVID-19."
During the week of Nov. 30, administrators at LTHS will consider whether and when to resume the hybrid schedule. The school on Oct. 19 had pivoted from remote learning to a hybrid program that had students coming to school twice a week.
Approximately 74 percent of LTHS students had been attending the in-person classes, a far greater percentage than at in RBHS, where less than half of students have for their one day of in-person learning each week.
"Our plan is to resume in-person learning as soon as it is safe to do so," Kilrea said. "The week of Nov. 30, 2020, we will update staff and families as to the status of our learning plan for the remainder of first semester."
At the RBHS District 208 school board meeting on Nov. 10, Superintendent Kevin Skinkis said he would make a decision on Friday about calling for an "adaptive pause" to the hybrid learning program after looking at the latest COVID-19 positive rates area. If RBHS switches to all-remote learning, it's likely that RBHS wouldn't resume hybrid learning until after Thanksgiving. The two days of classes scheduled for Thanksgiving week were already planned to be delivered remotely.
"This is a very fluid situation that we need to take serious, and we need to go one week at a time," Skinkis said.
So far, 17 RBHS students have tested positive for the coronavirus since the school year began, seven since Nov. 1. Three staff members -- two teachers and one support staff employee -- have also tested positive since Nov. 1. In all, six staff members have contracted the disease since the beginning of the school year.
Some parents, officials push for more in-person learning
Despite the increasing number of COVID-19 cases, some parents and at least three school board members are pushing to increase the number of days students attend classes in person and to improve the in-person student experience.
They say the current classroom experience, with students participating via Zoom with their remote classmates is not cutting it.
"The in-person model right now is not working," said Riverside resident Tracy Sloan, the mother of two students who added that she was speaking for a group of concerned school parents.
When RBHS switched to a hybrid learning model last month, Sloan said parents and students expected an in-school experience that would resemble a normal classroom. That is not what they got.
Instead the few RBHS students who do come to school get a Zoom class where the teacher is sometimes not even in the same room. Even if the teacher is in the same room, instruction is delivered via Zoom and there is little to no student-teacher interaction.
"That's not what we signed up for" Sloan told the school board. "It is not engaging, it is not enriching, it is not welcoming, it is not positive, it is not creative and it is not what these kids deserve."
Parent Rebecca Wood also spoke, complaining that parents were expecting better in-person instruction when the school switched to a hybrid learning model last month. Wood said that what RBHS did was like a bait-and-switch.
"This wasn't the right plan, and it was never a plan that we saw," Wood said.
School board members Laura Hruska, Wes Smithing and Ramona Towner also expressed anger about in-person instruction at RBHS and pushed to increase student attendance and make it more engaging.
Hruska, Smithing and Towner pressed the administration to demand more interactive teaching and increase student attendance to at least two days a week. RBHS had planned to increase in person attendance to two days a week this month but did not because of rising COVID cases.
"A Zoom meeting in the class where the kids can't talk to the teacher, can't talk to each other, is not in person and it shouldn't be called in person," Hruska said. "I don't know what it is, but it's not in person."
Hruska said e current setup is not acceptable and that other schools are doing better with in-person learning.
"We would never accept that in a non-pandemic year. Why are we accepting that now?" Hruska said. "Why is it OK to have the students in front of us and not engage them?"
Hruska: Teachers 'bullying' school board
Hruska, Smithing and Towner blamed the teachers union for inhibiting and discouraging in-person instruction.
"We're being bullied by our staff," Hruska said. "I think the union needs to hear these parent comments."
Towner said that while many teachers are doing a good job, she said the leadership of the teachers' union, the RBEA, is not cooperating.
"There are a ton of them that are doing good things," Towner said. "But the ones they have chosen to speak for them, their leadership, is toxic. That's the problem. And if those other teachers knew what they were saying to us in closed meetings, they would be shocked, shocked. I don't think they're honest with their membership about how they are representing their membership."
RBEA President Dan Bonarigo, a math teacher, seemed surprised by the attacks on the union leadership.
"The school board and RBEA had a meeting on October 6 that I thought was very productive," Bonarigo said in an email the day after the meeting. "After that meeting we thought things were going in a positive direction."
At one point Hruska seemed to suggest that the district should pursue some sort of legal action against some teachers.
"We're not getting what we voted for," Hruska said. "I don't know if we need to bring in an attorney. I don't know what we need to do to get what we voted for, to move in that direction."
RBHS Principal Hector Freytas said that he understood the frustration but asked for patience.
"I'm asking for your continued time and patience as we learn to teach during this global pandemic," Freytas said. "Parents and students, I hear you guys, you want more days, you guys want more time, you guys want traditional practices. I hear you and I'm working with my instructional coaches to find out how we can do more."
But Freytas reminded board members that COVID-19 can be a devastating illness.
"It's a brutal illness," Freytas said. "Picture the cold and flu times 10."
Board member Tom Jacobs called for calm and decried the heated comments.
"I would caution us not to get too hot and heavy on pointing fingers," Jacobs said.
Jacobs also noted that the parents who spoke at the school board meeting are not necessarily representative of the larger parent community.
"I would caution the entire board to recognize that this is an incredibly small sample size," Jacobs said.
Skinkis reminded school board members that balancing learning and safety is difficult.
"The problem with that that is that we're still in a pandemic," Skinkis said, adding that he acknowledged the frustration students and parents are feeling.
"I think we're all suffering from some COVID and Zoom fatigue," Skinkis said.