District 202 administrators at the July 22 town hall, from left, Dr. Diona Lewis, Director of Special Education; Dr. Eric Witherspoon, Superintendent; Dr. Marcus Campbell, Assistant Superintendent/Principal; Taya Kinzie, M.S.W., L.C.S.W., Associate Principal for Student Services; and Dr. Pete Bavis, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction. Corrie Wallace, facing the panel, moderated the evening’s discussion.

Though the building at 1600 Dodge Ave. will remain closed to students on Aug. 17, Evanston Township High School will be open for learning on that day, the first day of the 2020-21 school year.

Remote learning will be in place for every student – including the freshmen, whose introduction to high school will be remote, students with Individual Education Programs (IEPs) and 504 (accommodation) plans, and returning sophomores, juniors and seniors.

Five District 202 administrators explained on July 22 their decision to open the school on time with more clearly defined remote learning and to indefinitely postpone implementing a hybrid – that is remote and in-person combined – learning model for the upcoming school year.

More than 600 people were tuned into this E-Town Live town hall, which Corrie Wallace moderated. The five speakers – District 202 Superintendent Eric Witherspoon, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Pete Bavis, Assistant Superintendent/Principal Marcus Campbell, Associate Principal for Student Services Taya Kinzie and Director of Special Education Diona Lewis – appeared to have prewritten information about the questions selected from the more than 300 submitted. Blue or orange, Evanston Township High School’s colors, accented the attire of many of the panelists.

Administrators remain firm in their decision that school will begin on time and that remote learning will continue until, following the advice of and information from the Centers for Disease Control and guidelines from the Illinois State Board of Education, they feel it is safe to reopen the building to students and staff.

Ms. Wallace said, “We’re hosting tonight’s virtual event to discuss the fall reopening plan that was released on Friday, July 17. … We hosted a series of eight feedback sessions. … In addition, a survey was distributed to ETHS parents, alumni and faculty.”

The panel, she said, would discuss “recurring themes” and topics “based on the most commonly asked questions” but would not take any questions from the audience.

“The Nation Is on Fire”

Dr. Witherspoon at the beginning and again at the end of the meeting urged everyone to wear a mask. He said ETHS has procured masks for all students and staff members, for when they return to the high school.

“And so, when the day finally comes so that we’re able to begin phasing [in-person instruction] in, I just want everybody to know that you’ll all be receiving one of these masks. In the meantime, please wear your mask.”

Acknowledging there are differing opinions about how to safely reopen schools, Dr. Witherspoon said more than 100 people had put intense hours of planning into the final version and added, “I hope that you will be able to see as we have tried our very best to come up with a plan that’s going to keep everybody safe and alive at ETHS.”

He said administrators quickly modified the framework presented to the Board on July 13 in light of “unfolding conditions” that made many staff members fearful about returning to work in the building. Among those conditions were an outbreak at Lake Zurich High School and new research showing that young people spread the virus. While ETHS students live in Evanston and Skokie, some staff members live out of state, in Wisconsin or Indiana.

“The nation is on fire right now,” Dr. Witherspoon said. “Caution is the word of the day.”

Deciding Factors

Factors that went into the decision to implement remote learning immediately and indefinitely were equity, health and safety precautions, social and emotional well-being, academic and instructional strategies and outcomes, and infrastructure needs.

Dr. Campbell said 100-person task force tackled “this extremely difficult, complex challenge of addressing all of the ‘what ifs’ for remote hybrid and in-person instruction.”

Within the task force were subcommittees for instruction; student procedures; culture and climate; materials, purchasing and operations; and staff procedures.

Administrators were deliberately vague about the possible return of students and faculty to the building and cautioned, as they did on July 13, that the reopened ETHS “will not be the same high school” as before.

Dr. Bavis said, “We’ve listened to feedback, multiple perspectives, and we’ll continue to do that.” He said they realized the poll was outdated almost immediately after it was sent out.

“It was clear that students and families want to return to normalcy, but also there were many concerns that needed to be addressed. In the meantime, the environment was changing and continues to change. … And we’re learning from our colleagues throughout the state and across the nation in this ever-shifting landscape. … Our commitment remains to continue to gather multiple perspectives as we move forward.”

E-Learning for All

Dr. Bavis also reiterated points about this year’s e-learning he had made at the July 13 School Board meeting: that students will have a set daily schedule, that all students will have computer and internet access; that the A-F grading system will be in place; that teachers will provide feedback to students in addition to grades; that some learning will be synchronous, where all students will be taught at the same time, and some asynchronous, which students may pursue on their own time; and that academic, social-emotional, mental health and other supports will be in place.

Within the next few weeks, ETHS will notify students of their classes, and these cannot be changed, Dr. Bavis said, because the schedules are set with the possibility of students’ returning to the school at some point.

“We want all of our wild kids to return back to school. The guidance continues to change rapidly. And we know families have expressed concern about returning to the building … [and] teacher and staff have many concerns about the quality of instruction and how the remote learning is impacted by just not being in the building. … We are planning for both hybrid and remote learning options.

“We do not want to compromise the health and safety of our students, faculty and staff, or reduce the high academic expectations we have or take away any of the positive social experiences we want our students to have, which are some of the reasons why we are starting remotely in August in an enhanced e-learning environment.”

All students will have access to the Internet and to technical support. Mobile hotspots are available to those with no or low-functioning Internet access at home. Loaner devices will be available for any student having difficulties with a District-issued Chrome book.

All students have access to the same edtech software tools, and during the remote learning times, the Chrome Zone will be operating for technical support. During the remote learning periods, students can receive technical support on their Chromebooks by emailing chromesupport@eths202.org or calling 847-424-7357. If a loaner is needed a confirmation will be sent to the student arranging a device swap.

Special Education

Diona Lewis, the new Director of Special Education at ETHS, said, “Every IEP student will have an individual remote plan created by their case manager as an addendum to their current IEP. The creation of this document will be in partnership with your family to specifically address and align the IEP needs for students in a remote setting.

“Students in special education will receive all related services and accommodations as outlined in their IEP with enhanced e-learning. With the enhanced e-learning schedule, students will have contact with their learning-strategies case manager at least every other day. … Students will continue to get all services as outlined in their IEPs. Students with 504 plans will remain in place. Their 504 plans will remain in place, and their accommodations will be provided as outlined in these plans. When needed, 504 teams will adjust accommodations for an e-learning or hybrid situation. But teachers will focus on the important relationship-development and feedback as part of their instruction, including in the e-learning and hybrid environments.”

ETHS in 2020-21

Dr. Lewis noted that the models of remote and hybrid learning, which are designed to keep students apart from one another, are antithetical to what a school stands for – but are necessary to keep staff and students safe.

Ms. Kinzie spoke of the remote welcome for the class of 2024, with a virtual orientation and materials pickup on Aug. 10 and 11.

She said she her staff members will work to help students develop relationships with each other and staff and faculty. “So, even before we begin the school year, we have begun an opportunity for incoming freshmen to develop connections.” She said the school has a webpage that lists weekly activities for remote extracurricular activities even during the summer, and allows new students to ask questions of a student ambassador.

Dr. Witherspoon said, as he had on July 13, that a reopened ETHS will be very different from the ETHS that closed in March.

“It will not be the school we want it to be even when we go to the alternating hybrid model that we have already developed and we outlined last Monday on July 13.

“Everybody will be required to wear face coverings at all times except when they are eating. There will be no gatherings of more than 50 people in any space [which would have to] allow for the six feet apart social distancing.

“We will have to have some kind of self-screening process will require everybody so that they will verify every day that they do not have any of the symptoms that we’ll be asked about are listed, and that they do not have a fever.

“We know that we won’t be able to allow visitors in the building except in in extreme situations. And that’ll all be pre-arranged and they will have to follow specific guidelines. Students will be assigned seats in each place they go in the building.

“There will be no furniture in the lobby or the hallways, or in any of the general areas. … There will be more than just the normal four cafeterias so that people can be six feet apart. If they’re eating, there can’t be very long conversations because they’re unmasked and so they will have to eat silently and they will end they will have to eat in the same assigned place every single day.”

Only cold lunches will be offered, for the protection of the Nutrition Services staff. Hallways will be one-way. Students will have to remain seated when they are in class, and the teacher will be at least six feet away.

All of these, and more, are recommendations from the Illinois State Board of Education, the CDE and the Illinois Department of Public Health, Dr. Witherspoon said.

Dr. Bavis said, “Following our guidelines, and I see the desks facing forward, and then I see the desks in the larger space facing in one direction.

“I think about how stunningly isolated and experienced this high school which prides itself on connections, and making each connection count and welcoming and, and just how the value added of ETHS and the ETHS experience is.” He said the images of school conducted this way reminded him of “something frightening. That’s something that reminds me of pedagogy and instruction – I don’t know – pre-John Dewey. I mean you’re locked in a room, and you’re facing forward, and you’re can’t talk, and you can’t socialize, and you can’t do group work, and you can’t do the experiential things and the innovative things we’ve done as a high school.

“But let me say is also an opportunity here. And that opportunity has to do with what we’re going to deliver in our e-learning environment. Our teachers have worked extremely hard. All summer they worked hard, and during crisis learning in the spring, where we pivoted within a weekend to what we did. And we learned from that we had some great, great instructional experiences, and some not so great experiences. And we learned in summer school, we took stock, we added some, some guidelines, and it was a better experience.

“We can build community and we’ll build community and we can capture much of that we can recapture much of what it means to be a Wildkit. If that wasn’t the case, I would be addressing everyone in a much, much bleaker way. But I’m upbeat about that because I know with constraints come creativity and power. And I think we’re going to make this work for our students and families.

Ms. Kinzie said they would use the model of “Use your voice, even when it shakes.”

She also said, “We’ve never been through a crisis like this. But we have been through crises, and we have continued to come together. And I believe strongly in our staff, and in our students.

She said “‘Using your voice even when it shakes’ means telling us when it’s working, telling us when is when it’s not working, letting us know how to problem solve, and pausing, bringing compassion, all of us together, because all of those things are real.”

Still “A Great Day to Be a Wildkit”

Dr. Campbell thanked staff, students and the Evanston community for their “continued patience. … We still have some very tough days ahead.”

Dr. Witherspoon spoke his final remarks in a voice that at times seemed shaken with emotion.

 “What has happened to this country to this region, and to ETHS breaks my heart. … The very things that we do that enrich our lives and enhance our lives and make the Wildcat experience –they’re not going to happen now.

“And I know in some of this, we painted a little bit of a bleak picture. But we painted an accurate picture. And I can only imagine all of you whether your teachers and staff, whether your parents, whether you are our students, whether your community members, I can’t even imagine all the emotions you’ve gone through and are going through.

“Some of you are feeling down and despondent. Some of you are feeling courageous and ready to do whatever whatever’s asked of you.

“Some of you are worried about yourselves.

 “Some of you are worried about family members.

“And some of you, in the world of being a teenager, aren’t worried at all, and we know that.

“But here’s what you have to be doing right now. You have to be following the CDC and the Department of Public Health guidelines. You must be wearing your masks.

“Everything we do now for the remainder of the summer is going to drive down the infection rate. … What we do know is, if we follow the guidelines that I’m really asking you to follow, we can still control it. And we can still be a healthy community. And we can gradually get back to the kind of world that we want to be in, not only in Evanston, but at ETHS.

We are Wildkits. We care about each other. Not one of us wants to affect or hurt another one of us, not one of us. And I know that. But we all have to realize we bear a personal responsibility. And it’s the only way we’re going to be able to make progress on this.

“I can see it today, and I want to be to shout it out loud and clear in coming weeks and months, and remind us that ‘It’s a great day to be a Wildkit,’ even in the worst of times.”


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...