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Three people submitted comments to be read at the District 202 School Board meeting on Dec. 14, each of whom asked that Evanston Township High School be opened for the mental and physical health of the students.
Valerie Kimball, a pediatrician Chicago Area Pediatrics, and the mother of three current and prospective ETHS students, wrote she understood that the decision to open the school requires balancing many factors, such as the safety of the students and their academic and social-emotional needs.
For Dr. Kimball, the balance tips in favor of opening the school for reasons of mental health, physical health, and equity.
She wrote, “Over the past nine months, I have become extremely concerned about 1) the mental health of our teenagers in District 202 and 2) the increase in overweight and obesity we have seen over a nine-month period of time in children from Districts 65 and 202.
“Currently in our office, we see more children and teens for mental health consultations than we see for general sick visits (common colds, coughs).
“Our well-teen visits, which in the past were often exciting discussions about school, friends, and activities, are now primarily discussions about managing school from home, difficulties in staying motivated and engaged, the need for continued social interactions, and feelings of isolation, sadness, and anxiousness.
“Many teens indicate they have gone from A students to just barely getting by. Some wonder if they have developed ADD [Attention Deficit Disorder], as they no longer are able to focus and engage on a screen, others indicate they have simply become apathetic.”
The mental health crisis is exacerbated, she wrote, by the fact that mental health resources are overtaxed and the social workers, teachers, and coaches who helped students through tough spots are no longer as accessible.
Dr. Kimball also said her practice has seen more teens with eating disorders in the last nine months than in several years.
“Our children and teens are screaming for our help and the need for some sense of normality with in-person schooling, yet District 202 continues to operate out of fear and inadequate guidance,” she wrote.
Her second concern is obesity, caused by increased eating and decreased exercise.
Rather than roaming the halls and climbing stairs, students move from the bedroom to the kitchen to a place to study, with “open access to snack foods” and little or no parental supervision. Dysregulated eating and sleep schedules contribute to weight gain, Dr. Kimball wrote.
She wrote there is “a significant amount of data documenting the safe return to school and the low risk of transmission within the school walls despite [COVID-19’s] raging outside the walls … with very little data suggesting in-person learning as a super spreader site.”
Dr. Kimball asked the Board and administrators to take advantage of the medical community in and around ETHS.
She said she agreed with a statement by Superintendent Eric Witherspoon in late summer that ETHS would not lose one child to COVID-19, but added, “It is very unlikely the District will lose a child to COVID- 19 directly. However, we are on the brink of losing many of our children to the downward spiral of mental illness – anxiety, depression, drug use and overdose, and suicide as a result of delayed in-person schooling – not to mention those we have lost because they have given up on education.”
Referring to the disparity of resources, economic stability, and access to health care, Dr. Kimball wrote, “The equity gap has now become an equity canyon.”
Kai Sternstein, parent of a junior at ETHS, wrote that she is increasingly concerned about the impact of lengthy school closures and remote learning on the children of Evanston.
“Physicians, nurses, and mental health professionals in Evanston are sounding alarms at the crisis that is unfolding in front of their eyes, in their practices,” she wrote. She also noted that two Evanston physicians had submitted statements to be read at the Dec. 7 District 65 School Board meeting.
She added a personal note: “In our own family, our junior has less enthusiasm for school … He likes his teachers a lot. However, he doesn’t feel challenged.”
Ms. Sternstein said she believes teachers are trying their best but added, “What I am witnessing is not instilling a lot of confidence. … [L]ike most parents of high schoolers I know, we are terrified about the mental health consequences of lockdowns/closed schools for our teenagers. … We keep hearing of more and more Evanston teens drinking, doing drugs, being hospitalized, having panic attacks, being diagnosed with depression – even expressing suicidal ideation and harming themselves. … You surely agree that this is terrifying.”
She added the at-risk families are bearing the brunt of the fallout from COVID-19.
Finally, she wrote several specific questions about plans for reopening and requested that ETHS hold a town hall at which families could ask questions.
Betsy Lane, who did not specify her relationship to ETHS or any ETHS student, also urged the Board and administrators to open the school for hybrid learning. “At the very minimum,” she wrote, “you should consider getting the freshmen and seniors into the school so they can at least experience something of one of their most memorable years in high school. … We are seeing other school districts do this successfully, and I would assume Evanston can do better than most.”
As is customary, Board members did not comment on or respond to the public comment. However, administrators did give an update on the possibility of reopening the school for hybrid learning.