By Bob Uphues
Riverside-Brookfield High School will transition from all-remote to a hybrid learning model at the start of the academic year's second quarter, which begins Oct. 19. It is a move that a substantial majority of parents and students have been hoping for, although faculty remain wary.
While the plan is to begin the second quarter with 25 percent of the student body attending classes in person one day a week, Tuesday through Friday, that model could shift to 50 percent of students attending classes in person two times each week as early as mid-November.
The school board plans to vote to adopt a hybrid plan at its meeting Oct. 13, just prior to the start of the second quarter.
"I would expect us to get in-person learning in some form or fashion at the second quarter," said District 208 school board President Wes Smithing at a meeting Sept. 22 in the gym of Riverside-Brookfield High School.
The statement followed a presentation by Superintendent Kevin Skinkis and Assistant Superintendent Kristin Smetana that laid out the data informing the switch to a hybrid model and after pleas from more than a half dozen parents and students to allow students back in their classrooms, if only in a limited fashion.
"I know the teachers didn't sign up for this. I know it wasn't part of their [job] description, but that was true for most of us in this room as well," said Riverside resident Cathy Daun, who has two daughters, a senior and a sophomore, attending RBHS. "We owe it to our kids to have them back in school."
Students, who attend classes remotely from home but many of whom visit the school daily to attend athletic practices and for other reasons, said remote learning was mentally and emotionally draining.
"If the board, administration and the teachers decide to continue the remote learning experience, the mental health of all students is at risk," said junior class president Allison Brand, who is also on the varsity swim team and a member of several school clubs. "I personally have anxiety each and every day due to Zoom cutting out and missing crucial information."
Brand said the outlet of seeing and interacting with her teammates at swim practice helped her cope, but said non-athletes are stuck in isolation. And while teachers are trying their best to innovate and make the best of an all-remote environment, Brand says it falls short of in-person attendance.
"We aren't learning even half of what we would be in person," Brand said. "The lack of socialization and seeing our classmates in person is taking a toll on all of my peers.
"I promise you, if there is not a change that is made with our current schedule of strictly remote learning, it will negatively impact all the students at RB."
Parents and students overwhelmingly favor a return to in-person learning, according to surveys dated Sept. 21 that were included in the school board's meeting packet.
According to the survey, more than 70 percent of students and parents favored a hybrid model, with about one quarter of students and parents saying they'd continue to attend remotely, given a choice.
While 76 percent of teachers said they favored continuing the all-remote model, it was less clear how many teachers would either opt to take leaves of absence or retire if the school district implemented a hybrid model.
About 56 percent of teachers said they would not be comfortable if the district transitioned to a hybrid model that followed safety metrics published by the Illinois and Cook County departments of public health.
About a quarter of teachers said they were somewhat uncomfortable while about 18 percent said they were either comfortable or very comfortable.
Smetana said the school district had more specific local data related to COVID-19 testing, case and positivity rates than it did in August when the school board implemented remote learning for the first quarter.
A COVID-19 dashboard from Northwestern University, which allows the school district to examine Riverside, Brookfield and North Riverside as a unit, showed that the COVID positivity rate for the two-week period ending Sept. 21 was 2.99 percent, which is lower than both the state and suburban Cook County.
COVID transmission matrices published by the IDPH and CCDPH after the school's August remote-only decision also provide metrics to gauge whether in-person learning can either be implemented or abandoned.
According to those matrices, RBHS falls within the metrics for allowing in-person learning.
"At this time during the pandemic, I don't believe we can return to traditional in-person learning," said Skinkis, who defined that term as all students on campus, participating in normal classes and activities. "That being said, I do believe that there is an opportunity to provide the social-emotional interaction students desperately need right now."
School board members were also unanimous in their support for the start of a hybrid plan beginning with the second quarter, though school board member Laura Hruska urged officials to move more quickly, suggesting Oct. 1 as the start.
She criticized the reluctance of teachers to welcome students back into classrooms, saying that she and others have gone back to their workplaces or in some cases never left them. Parents and students alike, she said, work jobs that place them in contact with the public and put them at some risk.
"We have to live with this virus for all of us who are working daily and have been working since day one," Hruska said. "We wear the protective gear but we are out there every day working with this. Our students are saying they're ready, and in fact our students are working with it. They're in our restaurants and our grocery stores. Our students are taking the risks our own staff are not taking."
Board member Tom Jacobs urged his colleague to tone down the rhetoric and recognize the real concerns teachers have, but he, too, supported moving to a hybrid plan.
"We should have the courage to move faster to go into getting students on campus," Jacobs said. "And we all know, we can always come back [to remote learning] very quickly, but we shouldn't be shy about doing it in the other direction as well."
Skinkis said he has reconvened an ad-hoc committee dealing with the school's reopening plan, one that includes administrators, a board member, community members and teachers' representatives.
That group continues to meet, and school board members urged Skinkis to give them more feedback from faculty on what can be done to make them more comfortable seeing students return to classrooms.
But, it was also clear that a teacher demand for all-remote learning would not be considered.
"The community is saying, 'This is the way we want to teach our children,' and I understand the union's point," Smithing said. "We love and respect our teachers, but we love and respect our children more."
Smithing also called on teachers to tell officials if they planned on not coming back to the classroom for in-person instruction.
"Tell us sooner than later, so we have four weeks to fill your spot," Smithing said.