RBHS Board of Education discusses possible return to in-person instruction

Superintendent+Dr.Kevin+Skinkis+discusses+his+hybrid+learning+plan+at+September+22nd%27s+Board+of+Education+meeting

Photo courtesy of RBTV

Superintendent Dr.Kevin Skinkis discusses his hybrid learning plan at September 22nd’s Board of Education meeting

Liam Mathews and Ava Kopecky

As the days go by, and summer passes into fall, many schools throughout Illinois and across the country are faced with the question: can we go back to in person learning? High schools throughout Cook County have taken different approaches to school in the time of COVID-19, some, such as Lockport and Lincoln Way, have been following a hybrid learning model since September 21st, while others like Lyons Township held their first quarter fully remote, but have announced plans to transition to a hybrid model come second quarter. Riverside Brookfield High School is among those that have yet to make a decision on their future learning plans.

Students at RB have been attending remote classes since August 24, and they want to know if they should expect this to continue into the second quarter, which begins on Monday, October 19th. RB had planned on following a hybrid model from the beginning of the school year, but new health and safety guidelines from the Illinois Department of Health, (IDPH), as well as teachers’ concerns over the safety of having students on campus derailed that plan, and the school board announced that the school would follow a fully remote model through all of first quarter.

As the weeks have gone by, many students, parents and community members have raised concerns over remote learning. Some voiced their grievances at the Board of Education meeting on September 22nd.

“Public school is supposed to be about equal opportunities for all; remote learning does the exact opposite. Being isolated in my room for several hours a day genuinely makes me sad. I don’t know another way to describe it,” said Junior class president Alli Brand. “The lack of specialization, and seeing their classmates in person is taking a toll on myself and my peers.”

Brand also stated that the complications of remote learning has had a negative affect on her mental health and her education.

“I personally have anxiety every day due to my Zoom meetings cutting out and missing crucial information,” Brand said, “and stressing about whether or not this remote setting will sufficiently prepare me for college entrance exams and a higher education.”

Community members also spoke up about the emotional effects that a fully remote schedule has on students. One concerned community member in particular, Patricia Smithing, argued that the lack of in-person schooling is greatly harming some students’ mental health. After months of quarantine at the beginning of the pandemic, speaking through tears, Smithing explained that her son has dealt with depression and anxiety. Smithing believes that going back to in-person school could help her son, and others dealing with these issues.

“Once I heard we were going to a hybrid plan in the fall, I saw a spark go back into my kids eyes,” said Smithing, as she then voiced her displeasure over remote learning. “Average kids are being marginalized and left behind.”

Following comments by the audience, Superintendent Dr. Kevin Skinkis outlined a draft of RB’s plan making a return to in person school. The plan, which would start on October 18th, involves only 25% of the student body being on campus each day, as students would be divided into groups by the first letter of their last name, and assigned one day a week to come into school.

In order for this plan to come to fruition, the Riverside-Brookfield area will have to meet various health and safety requirements. COVID cases in both suburban Cook County, and Riverside, North Riverside, and Brookfield, will have to stay under 100 per 100,000 people, increase in case numbers must stay below 20%, and test positivity rates must remain below 8%. Thus far all of those requirements are being met, but there is more standing in the way of RB returning to in person learning.

A survey sent out by school administrators to students, parents and teachers looked to ascertain where each group stood on the issue of returning to school. While the majority of students and parents were in favor of returning to in person school (70.7% and 70.1%, respectively), teachers were overwhelmingly against having students in the building, as 76.4% said they want to continue with remote learning, and 82% indicated that they were uncomfortable with in-person instruction.

Members of the school board, as well as Dr. Skinkis explained that they were hoping teachers would come around to the idea of returning to school, but, according to Dr.Skinkis and several Board of Education members, they have yet to come to the table for negotiations.

Members of the board felt that a survey was necessary to gauge where the community stood on the issue of returning to in-person learning. Now that they have the results of the survey, the board plans to act in the interest of the majority.

“In this situation we represent the voice of the community, and they have overwhelmingly told us what they want, so it is absolutely our responsibility to act,” said board member Ramona Towner.

While this current plan has the board’s approval, it’s members stressed that this decision would require cooperation between all groups involved with the school.

“Whenever you have a discussion with diverging opinions, everybody has to recognize that compromise is required. Nobody is going to get exactly what they’d like. They [the teachers] have to come to the table, the sooner the better, and once everything is on the table there will be a decision making process, and that will lead to a solution,” said first-term board member Tom Jacobs.

Some board members expressed anger with the Riverside Brookfield faculty, when the results of the survey were released regarding the 76.4% of staff that wanted to stay fully remote.

“Our students are saying they’re ready [to come back]. They’re working with it. They’re in our restaurants and in our grocery stores,” said board member Laura Hruska. “Our students are taking the risk our own staff are not taking.”

Representatives for the Riverside Brookfield Education Association, President Dan Bonarigo and President-Elect Marty Sloan, released a statement to the Clarion regarding teachers’ concerns over returning to in person instruction. The statement is included in-full below:

The RBEA has a wide range of individuals and many have voiced their concerns about returning to in person instruction due to personal health concerns, safety measures, security and protocols for mask and social distancing.  As these concerns are addressed by the administration, there is a chance that more staff could feel comfortable returning to in person instruction for the general population of students.  We’re not just concerned about staff.  We are concerned for the students and their families as well. The fact that we have not had a school nurse for weeks and there has been a population of students in the building every day is a serious concern.  The RBEA and the school board have not had any discussion regarding returning to in person instruction.  I am hopeful that we can address the issues facing our school in regards to in person instruction.  We are monitoring what other schools are doing in regard to their health and safety protocols.  I cannot say that our teachers currently feel safe in the building, but it is clear that many do not feel safe with our current protocols and practices if the general population of students return.  The RBEA is asking for additional measures to ensure all who will enter the building on a daily basis will remain safe.”

Although the teachers and the board have yet to agree on a plan, Board President Wes Smithing expressed optimism for an agreement which could see students on campus to begin second quarter.

“I have a feeling that the teachers will come back, because they love the children and they love what they do, and it’s a passion. I’m very confident in that, if we stick with our timeline, and if we work methodically through that timeline, and do what we say we’re going to do,” said Wes Smithing.

Jacobs argued that although there are currently some disagreements between the Board of Education, students and teachers, all of those groups are in this situation together, and it will take all of them working together to find a solution.

“We are one community that includes the students, the teachers, the parents and other community members as well,” said Jacobs. “[It will take] a fundamental recognition that we are all in this together.”

The Board of Education will meet again on October 13th, with the intention of deciding on a final hybrid instruction plan to be implemented from the start of 2nd quarter.