By Bob Skolnik
Local schools are planning to open in August, but exactly what school will look like has yet to be determined. Last week, Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the Illinois State Board of Education announced that schools should open as scheduled and issued guidelines about what steps schools should take to serve students and protect them and staff from the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Local school administrators are now feverishly working to figure out how to put the guidelines into practice. And it won't be easy.
"It's going to look different," said Mark Kuzniewski, the superintendent of Brookfield-LaGrange Park Elementary School District 95. "We're going to think about things in terms of instruction and what certain classes will look like, but we are ready to meet that challenge."
Schools must follow social distancing guidelines and students and staff will have to wear face masks or face shields while in school.
The biggest decision for administrators will be whether to bring back all students at once or switch to a so-called blended model, combining in-school instruction and remote learning.
Under blended learning models, students would be split into groups with each group attending school at different times during the week. The idea is to have fewer students in the school building at one time to allow for the required physical distancing, where in which students are expected to remain at least six feet apart whenever possible.
Riverside Elementary School District 96 is leaning toward adopting a blended-learning approach.
"I don't think we can get everybody back in person and be physically distanced," said District 96 Superintendent Ryan-Toye "I think we'll build a really good hybrid model and get that out to families as soon as we possibly can."
But District 95 is aiming to bring all students back at once with a normal school day and week. Bus transportation and other factors make a blended model just too complicated, Kuzniewski said.
"I can say with great confidence there will not be a blended model," Kuzniewski said.
District 95 is also surveying parents to get feedback about what parents are looking for in sending their kids back to school.
Blended models seem likely for high schools, which pose greater challenges than elementary schools in terms of physical distancing, because students move from class to class every period.
Both area high schools say that they have committees working on a plan and officials were reluctant to say very much now.
"We have been and are in the midst of reviewing guidelines and contemplating scenarios," said Jennifer Bialobok, the community relations coordinator for Lyons Township High School District 204, which serves the south half of Brookfield.
Riverside-Brookfield High School District 208 Superintendent Kevin Skinkis referred the Landmark to a communication the district has posted on its website and sent to parents.
It states that RBHS has a COVID-19 transition committee of administrators, faculty, staff, parents and students working on plans for the start of school, which is now less than seven weeks away.
The committee met on June 24 and determined that a final plan will be sent out to families no later than Aug. 3, which is two weeks before the first day of school.
Schools will be required to confirm temperature checks for all students and staff every day, but they will be allowed to do temperature checks at home and certify them through an online portal.
At RBHS, and likely other schools, drinking from water fountains will not be allowed and students will only be allowed to use water bottles. Classroom layouts will be changed to maximize social distancing, and hand sanitizer will be available in every classroom. Cleaning will be increased at all schools.
How to handle lunch is one issue schools are dealing with since the state public health regulations say that groups of more than 50 people are not allowed in any one room.
RBHS is revising its master schedule to increase the number of lunch periods from three to five to allow for more physical distancing. Portions of lunchrooms and cafeterias may be divided with curtains or other partitions to keep within the limit of 50 people in one room. Salad bars may have to go.
"Kids aren't going to be able to come and visit a salad bar where they used to be able to scoop fruit and scoop salad and get as many vegetables as they wanted," Kuzniewski said. "I can't imagine that's going to be allowable."
Lunch in District 95 will likely be a grab-and-go sack lunch, Kuzniewski said. The small gym at S.E. Gross Middle School may be turned into an additional lunch room. Students might be allowed to eat lunch outside, Kuzniewski and Ryan-Toye said.
Some have suggested that elementary school students might eat lunch in their classrooms, but Kuzniewski doesn't think that's a good idea.
"We're really trying to work hard to find a solution where they do not eat in the classroom, though it seems like the most logical point," Kuzniewski said. "But when you have little kids eating in the classroom you have food that spills on the floor."
The fate of middle school and high school sports has yet to be determined.
All districts are working on backup remote learning plans that might have to be used if COVID-19 cases spike and schools have to be closed again.
"Even if we start in person, there is a likely chance that at some point we'll be back to remote learning," Kuzniewski said.
District 96's 20-person transition team is focusing on how best to deliver instruction in the changed circumstances.
"I feel like we can work through the lunch and the cleaning and the health and safety," Ryan-Toye said. "We've been talking and thinking a lot about those things."
Classrooms are being measured as school officials try to determine how many kids they can fit if everyone has to sit six feet apart.
Administrators say they know that students learn best in person with a teacher physically present and that kids want and need to be with their classmates.
"Our goal is to bring the most students back in person for the greatest amounts of time with the most instructional focus," Ryan-Toye said.
Wearing face coverings all day will be challenging for both students and teachers. How strongly teachers can project their voices wearing face masks is just one issue. Students often need to see their teacher's lips, especially when doing phonics and learning to read. Face shields, instead of masks, are one option.
The Pipal family of Riverside has provided District 96 with 40 face shields to be used by speech therapists and others who need their lips to be seen. Clear face masks, or face masks with a clear covering for the mouth, is another option.
"We know that kids need to see teacher's faces," Ryan-Toye said.
Administrators say they hope for more coordination among west suburban school districts, noting that most of their staff do not live in the district in which they teach. This is especially important because many districts are expected to have blended models in which teachers may need to stay at home with their own children on some days.
"I was wishing for a more coordinated approach," Ryan-Toye said. "Many of our employees have children in neighboring school districts."
But administrators said that despite the challenges they are committed to coming up with a plan that works and improves upon the remote learning that took place during the spring after schools were shuttered in March.
"District 95 has a great team and we're going to figure this out and we're going to get kids learning," Kuzniewski said.