The fall semester at Evanston Township High School will involve e-learning. That much is clear, Superintendent Eric Witherspoon said at the June 9 District 202 School Board meeting. How much e-learning, and how much, if any, in-class instruction there will be remains to be seen.

Five Scenarios for Fall Opening

In a recent letter to ETHS families, Dr. Witherspoon said one of his colleagues, Dr. Prentiss Lea, identified five possible scenarios for schools in the 2020-21 academic year:

                1. Normal In-Person Opening (back-to-normal with no adaptations)

                2. Adapted In-Person Opening (back-to-normal with adaptations, such as temperature checks, masks,                                        social distancing, eye coverings, etc.)

                3. Hybrid Opening (combination of in-person and remote) 

                4. Varied In-Person Opening (alternating days, split shifts, etc. with adaptations such as temperature                                          checks, masks, social distancing)

                5. Remote Opening/Virtual e-Iearning (improved and enhanced ETHS remote learning)

“And if that’s not enough to think about,” Dr. Witherspoon’s letter said, “those five identified scenarios do not even address delayed openings (e.g. after Labor Day? October? January? 2021?) Fortunately, any of those five scenarios could be adapted to a future starting date. … If the Governor and ISBE [the Illinois State Board of Education] keep Illinois schools closed in the fall, which seems like the safest action from what we know right now, we will implement improved and enhanced remote learning.”

Making Fall E-Learning Plans Is “Like Nailing Jell-O to a Wall”

Pete Bavis, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, echoed Dr. Witherspoon, saying “We do know that e-learning is going to play a significant role.”

Acknowledging the uncertainty of whether and how ETHS will open, he said making concrete plans “is like nailing Jell-O to a wall.”

In a memo to the instructional staff, Dr. Bavis wrote, “While we don’t know how long e-learning will last, we want to plan for different e-learning scenarios, since we already know how to teach if we are fully in-person. Potential scenarios are full remote learning or some hybrid. We are beginning the process of developing schedules aligned to different scenarios. … ETHS can turn this continuing challenge into an opportunity for making some needed change, for demonstrating creativity, agility and adaptiveness, and for providing students a safe, nurturing, and inspiring place for learning and discovery in fall”

Recent articles about e-learning across the country have questioned its effectiveness. Implicitly alluding to the disappointing results of e-learning both in Evanston and across the country, Dr. Bavis told the Board, “If we are e-learning in the fall, the experience will be different than it is now.”

One difference, he said, will be the return to the traditional A-F grading system, which was abandoned when the school closed in March for the remainder of the 2019-20 academic year.

“We are mandating professional development this summer,” Dr. Bavis’s letter said, “and the ETHS Ed Tech team is developing essential modules on planning, content-delivery, assessment, feedback, discussion and climate.”

He said at the June 8 meeting, “We are elevating well-being, doing work on assessment and will work on community –building.”

In addition to the required professional development, ETHS teachers should revise course content and expectations and communicate these to students at the beginning of the school year; improve structure and framework so students will know what to expect on a daily and weekly basis; interact regularly with students – and have students interact with each other – via Zoom; post daily agendas, handouts, directions before the class starts; build community and provide feedback.

“Community-building is important for our students,” Dr. Bavis’s memo said. He urged teachers to make “frequent, strategic and highly visible appearances online – in addition to the Zoom sessions.” Teachers can type up and post summaries of course materials, replies in discussion forums and general announcements.

Students crave regular feedback in addition to grades, Dr. Bavis said, encouraging teachers to provide written, audio or video feedback to students.

“We’re simplifying and going deeper,” Dr. Bavis said. “We want to provide a safe space – intellectually, emotionally and health-wise.”

Equity in E-Learning

Board member Gretchen Livingston said, “I don’t want to lose sight of our equity focus. … [E-learning] is a much bigger issue for those who are already struggling. Nobody seems to have a good way to address it.

Dr. Witherspoon agreed, “These are equity issues – a lot of what we’ve been reading about is a national problem, not an ETHS problem. Every [ETHS] student has a device, and we have hundreds of hotspots for connecting. … If we have a soft start with an e-learning model, students who are not connected can come in. Two hundred fifty students we can handle, students who need extra tutoring, extra supports … maybe two days a week.”

Board member Monique Parsons advised meeting with District 65 officials. If District 65 schools do not open, she said, some ETHS students might have to take care of their younger siblings. They might not be able to get online in a timely fashion or be able to get to the school.

“It’s clear we have to work in cooperation with District 65,” said Board President Pat Savage-Williams.

An Opportunity”

Board member Stephanie Teterycz said, “It also sems to be a matter of perspective and how you choose to apparoch it – that e-learning is necessarily suspicious, necessarily less thamn face-to-face learning.

“You can take this as an opportunity to be thought-leaders, be creative. … How do we make this something [the students] can be proud of, that gives us a chance to look at students a new way?” some students were overlooked in the old system, Ms. Teterycz said. “Maybe we can reach some of those students we overlooked before. We have to embrace it and use these gifts and make it the best it can possibly be.”

Dr. Witherspoon said, “Some of it is a great opportunity. Thank you for pointing that out.”

Dr. Bavis said teachers have “re-conceptualized how they grade; they understand the value of feedback.”

Board member Jude Laude said there is an opportunity for growth.

Board member Pat Maunsell said, “I have faith in what you’re doing.”

Board President Pat Savage-Williams said she appreciated the entire conversation. The challenge ahead is important, but there are nuggets we can hold onto.”

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...