While teachers remained on strike, Lake Forest High School reopened Monday, apparently with enough students and certified teachers on hand to meet state criteria.
But whether the unusual move by the district will allow Monday to count as an official attendance day — or whether the experiment went well enough to be sustained — remained unclear.
Lake County regional schools chief Roycealee Wood, who was on hand Monday morning, said she planned to talk to state officials before determining whether Lake Forest High School District 115 provided a legally acceptable day of instruction. She said she still was determining how much latitude she had to make the call and noted that it could set a precedent.
The scene outside the school Monday looked much as it has since Wednesday, when the one-school district's 150 teachers first walked out after contacts talks broke down. But inside the school, administrators, substitute teachers and volunteers oversaw an unusual array of programs in lieu of the usual class schedules and curriculum.
Several students reported some confusion inside the building and described some of the educational offerings as substandard.
"It's been boring because we're not learning much," senior Janelle DeWitt, 17, said during her lunch break, adding that she's not taking sides. "I just want things to be resolved quickly."
Fellow senior Alex Sennello said in a phone call from the school that instead of physical education, "they stuck us in the gym with no instruction for an hour and a half."
Hannah Hart, 17, a junior, described how a group of students was sitting on the floor in the school auditorium. At one point, she said, the teens weren't paying attention to a movie on a Lake Bluff orphanage, and so teachers turned it off and showed a video of a student talent show instead, she said.
"It was scary," Hart said. "It felt like jail."
She and her friend tried to leave, telling a teacher that they wanted to join the teachers on strike outside, she said. They were not allowed to leave the building, though others "escaped" before the school day ended, she said.
Yet many students said they appreciated the efforts to keep school open. They don't want to have to make up classes next summer, and they also hope to see homecoming festivities proceed this weekend as planned, some said.
"It's nice to know they are looking out for our best interests," Andrew Nelson, 17, a junior from Lake Bluff, said during lunch break.
Picketing teachers would not discuss the school being open, referring questions to their spokesman.
"It's a sad day for our high school," said Chuck Gress, spokesman for the Lake Forest Education Association. "This whole thing could have been avoided."
School officials viewed the day as a success, counting more than 1,400 students in attendance. The school's estimated enrollment is 1,700.
About 70 certified teachers, 20 teacher assistants, special education teachers and support staff helped provide programs Monday that included a motivational speaker, a police presentation and a yoga lesson, officials said. More than 50 community volunteers helped in the effort.
Also remaining unclear is whether students can participate in sports contests while teachers are on strike. School administrators have said the games can go on, but state and county education officials have said the strike must end first.
Contract negotiations continued late into the night.
On Monday, Lake Forest teachers found support on the picket line from other school districts, with teachers coming from New Trier Township High School in Winnetka as well as others from Lincolnshire, Deerfield, Highland Park and Chicago. Many had the day off for the Jewish new year.
Sticking points during Lake Forest talks have included salary raises, benefits and a proposed two-tier salary structure. Teachers have adamantly opposed the last because it would move new teachers up the career ladder at a slower pace.
Whenever a resolution comes, school board President Sharon Golan said the district and its teachers will "pull back together" when the strike is over.
"This is about the process. It's not about the people, the personalities, at all," Golan said. The strike, she said, "is just a little glitch."
School Principal Jay Hoffmann told parents that officials are prepared to hold school all week without teachers, if needed.
But some labor experts say the district risks alienating the union — and some parents — by its efforts to keep school open.
Todd DeMitchell, a former California educator and school board negotiator who now teaches at the University of New Hampshire, said bringing in substitutes during a strike used to be a common pressure tactic used against teachers but that in the past decade, school officials became less likely to use it.
He said that's partly because it's hard to run a school for long with substitutes and other temporary workers. But it's also because officials grew wary of stirring up hard feelings that often linger long after the strike ends.
"In a strike situation, you can't say, 'This is just business,'" he said. "It becomes personal."
Though replacement workers are commonly deployed during strikes in private industry, Bob Bruno, director of the University of Illinois' labor education program, said trying that approach with public school teachers can provoke a backlash. Taxpayers, he said, quickly get fed up with lower levels of service, especially when it affects their children.
"Most private-sector workers don't come in contact with the person who's the end user of the product," he said. "In the public sector, they do. It's a much more high-risk move to suggest you can just swap out one group of workers for another."