In an interview on July 1, Superintendent Devon Horton told the RoundTable it is “more than likely” that School District 65 will be using a “hybrid” model this coming school year, in which parents have an option to choose to continue remote learning or to return to schools for in-classroom instruction.

“We will have certain students and staff that will not be able to return to school, and some will be for medical reasons, while others are just not going to feel safe,” Dr. Horton said. “And I really believe that we owe them to some degree an option to choose to go remote or to return.

“ So we’ll have that and then we’ll have a population of students and staff that will return to the buildings physically, and we are currently working to make sure that we’re meeting all CDC guidelines around PPE gear, spacing in the classrooms, in front of the campuses temperature checking, self-reporting, all of those, and limiting visitors to buildings.”

He said one thing the District is working on is creating additional space for students in the Second and Fifth Wards to attend classes in some local buildings, not school buildings – because the Fifth Ward does not have a school building.

This would create additional classroom space in smaller settings and reduce the need for busing.

Dr. Horton  said the District’s task force – composed of more than 60 community members, including parents, educators, representatives of unions, clergy, and community organizations – is working on this plan.

“This is not a District 202 or 65 plan. I can legitimately say this is an Evanston, the City’s plan to work and design how we return to school.”

Dr. Horton said the group is working on the logistics to make this hybrid plan work. He said, ideally, “We would have to have a response from every single parent or guardian in our community to say that they are choosing to go to school or remote.” He said they are working on a way to obtain that information.

Once they have that information, they will design how the physical schools will look.

On June 23, Governor J.B. Pritzker announced the guidelines for K-12 schools, which were approved by the Illinois State Board of Education and the Illinois Department of Public Health.  In-person instruction is “strongly encouraged” in Phase 4 of the Restore Illinois Plan, say the guidelines.  A caveat, though, is that schools should not expect to “return to pre-pandemic operations” but should plan to implement social distancing and enhanced sanitation measures and enforce the use of personal protective equipment, including face-coverings.

Some of the many guidelines include ensuring a six-foot physical distance from other persons as much as possible; spacing desks six feet apart;  facing desks in the same direction;  providing assigned seating for students and requiring students to remain in these seats to the greatest extent possible; building time for hand-hygiene and/or schedule hand hygiene breaks, including before/after eating snacks/meals and upon exiting and returning to the classroom; requiring all staff and students to wear face coverings unless they are younger than 2 years of age or have a medical condition; and prohibiting gatherings of more than 50 people in a room. There are also many guidelines for busing students. A summary of more of the guidelines is available here. 

In practical terms, the guidelines limit the number of students who may be present in a classroom and, in turn, the capacity of a school building to serve students. One method to address the spacing requirement and the limits on capacity suggested by ISBE is to stagger schedules, by alternating days or by creating morning and afternoon sessions.

Dr. Horton said staggering schedules would create problems for working parents and guardians, as well as create more problems for the District to solve.

He said, “It can’t be something, let’s say, on Monday, we have children that are remote, then on Wednesday you want to change it to going in physically. We have to design an actual process that would make sense so that we can have time to prepare our campus and our campuses and make sure that we have the right spacing in all of our classrooms.”

When asked if he envisioned having some students attending school in the morning and some in the afternoon, he said, “We looked at some scheduling that ISBE recommended. We toyed around with that. I won’t say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to that.”

He said, though, that the task force highlighted that having a morning schedule and an afternoon schedule, or a schedule based on attending in-person classes on alternating days would create problems for parents who were employed, including those employed in essential services.

“We have to think of a plan that will allow our parents and our guardians to best be prepared to support,” he said. 

When asked if parents of 4,000 students said they wanted their children to attend in-person classes, would the District try to accommodate those 4, 000 students, Dr. Horton said, “yes.”

When asked if there might be a possibility of using a lottery to select students who could return to school if there was a space issue, Dr. Horton said he “would hate to put students who have been marginalized or who have not done well in school into a lottery if they desire to return physically to the school.”

“So there’s just a lot of work that we have to do to come up with a plan that makes sense for our community,” Dr. Horton said.

Dr. Horton said, “The teaching and learning task force is building out our curriculum. They’re building out assessments and are building out intervention structures to help our students who are challenged.

“For example, we’re working with one of the organizations in the community, OPAL, to provide supports for our students who have struggled in grades K through five, to get them some additional services through Sylvan Learning.

 “That’s just an example. But those are the type of efforts that we are going to put forward throughout the course of next school year to be sure that we’re giving our students everything that they need.

He added that in order to meet students where they are “we have to assess them with high frequency and then put interventions in place to support as we move forward. So we are going to have some unique intervention opportunities virtually for our students this coming fall, as well as for those who will be physically in school.”

He said this would be true for both students who were engaging in remote learning and those participating in in-classroom instruction.

He said the District Educators Council (DEC, the teachers union) and all the other unions have been working with the District, bringing ideas to the table. He said teachers have been directly involved in preparing the curriculum for next year, and are serving on the teaching and learning task force.

“I’d like to say while we know the pandemic has been unfortunate, and just a challenge across this world, here in our District, we’re not looking at it as a deficit; we are looking at this as an opportunity to redo and renew the way we do school for our students.

 “Not too many of us are really comfortable or confident to say that prior to COVID-19 we were doing school the right way. So this is our chance to redo it and we want to take advantage, turn this catastrophe into something great for our kids.”

Dr. Horton is also implementing a school improvement plan. The RoundTable will summarize that plan in a subsequent article.

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...