ETHS officials say the school will open for hybrid learning after spring break.

Evanston Township High School administrators and staff are preparing students, staff, and the building itself for the return of students in a hybrid-learning format, perhaps as early as mid-March.

At the Jan. 11 School Board meeting, Director of Operations Clarence Gregory and Associate Principal Robbie Brown checked off a list of preparations they have made and procedures they are following to make the building safe for hundreds of people on any given day. Assistant Superintendent Pete Bavis gave an overview of the academic challenges of a hybrid model.

Under ETHS’s hybrid model – which administrators presented last fall, thinking the school might open in September – students would be in the building Tuesday through Friday, with 25% of the students attending in-person classes each of those days. No students would be in the building on Mondays.

Superintendent Eric Witherspoon said the District will give a 30-day notice when it feels conditions permit re-opening the building.  

Preparation for a Healthy Physical Environment

Dr. Witherspoon said, “We are getting far more detailed in our planning for our hybrid model, because we know that we will be moving towards that sometime yet this semester. We have already announced that, and, as we monitor conditions, we will continue to make sure that we’re ready to go. One big part of that is being ready with our facilities. Robbie Brown, our administrator who is responsible for facilities, works closely with Clarence Gregory and his team.”

Mr. Gregory, an engineer, has been at ETHS for 30 years, Dr. Witherspoon said, adding, “There is not one square inch of this school, either above ground or below ground, that Clarence Gregory doesn’t know.”

Mr. Brown said some building-operations employees have been working even while the building was closed. In preparation for the students’ return, he said, the operations department has been concentrating on cleaning and sanitizing, upgrading the HVAC (heating, ventilating, and air conditioning system), and reconfiguring classrooms and hallways for safety.

Cleaning, Masks, HVAC and Classrooms

At present, even with minimal staff in the building, Mr. Brown said, “All areas of the school are being cleaned and sanitized at least once daily. Our high-touch areas like handrails and doorknobs and bathrooms are all being sanitized and cleaned at least three times every single day.”

A mask-wearing mandate is enforced, and masks are available to those who do not have one. Each classroom and office is being stocked with sanitizer, wipes, paper towels, and cleaning solution, Mr. Brown said.

“We will also be having the Plexiglas barrier between the teacher station and the classroom. … And we are also installing many hand sanitizer manual pumps on the walls of the school so that you won’t walk very many steps in the school without finding another place that you can get it.”

The building operations team is upgrading the HVAC filters to a MERV-13 rating, which, Mr. Brown said, is the rating recommended by the Illinois Department of Public Health. The MERV is the Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value of an air filter. The scale runs from a low of 1 to a high of 20. 

“Our applied operations department starts our HVAC system really early, at least two hours before most almost anyone comes into the building, to get the ventilation system working,” Mr. Brown said.

In addition, he said, “We are also using as much outside air as possible into the filters system into the HVAC System. And that’s a delicate balance, because, especially as it’s colder outside, we can’t throw too much cold air into the system. So our engineers are doing a daily calculation of how much fresh air outside air can be brought into our HVAC system.

“All of our rooms have filtered air supply. Even rooms without windows have filtered air supply. And they also have a return vent as well to keep the air moving within all of the classrooms and rooms here. We are encouraging folks as needed to crack a window just to continue to get fresh air into the building as much as possible.”

He also said the teams are following all the specific IDPH air-exchange recommendations for music and dance classes, such as allowing the air in each of those rooms to turn over at least three times before the next group uses the room.”

Desks in the classrooms have been set up in rows, with a six-foot perimeter.

“We’re going to be installing wall and floor signing just to encourage things like mask wearing and social distancing throughout the school and ‘Keep Moving’ and ‘Stand Here,’” Mr. Brown said.

Mr. Gregory said, “You say school opens up in February or March. No problem, it’ll be ready.”

Board members thanked Mr. Gregory and Mr. Brown for their work and the update.

Board member Pat Maunsell thanked the two and said, “I just want to say that it seems interesting that – after, I don’t know, 100 or whatever number of years – that horribly cold and windy hallway down to the athletic department, now has a purpose. So there’s always something we learn.”

Academic/Instructional Preparation

Dr. Bavis discussed the challenges presented by hybrid learning. As a preface he said, “The school looks different now. And it sure will look different in the very near future.”

He reiterated what he had said at the prior Board meeting, that hybrid learning is a third choice to in-person or remote learning. 

“We know that hybrid learning does not meet the standards of normal full in-person instruction. The biggest challenge is for our teachers to reconcile that.”

Remote in-person instruction – in ETH’s case, having 75% of the students remote and 25% in the classroom – presents problems of communication and instruction, he said.

Under the hybrid model, there may be five or six students in a classroom, sitting in assigned, socially distanced seats. The teacher will wear a mask, which could prevent the remote students from hearing what is said and picking up on non-verbal or social cues.

To address this, the school is looking into acquiring microphones for the teachers.

To enable contact-tracing, students will have to sit in the same seat each time and will not be able to move about the room.

“We want to also acknowledge that there is some social value in bringing students into the building. But we have to remember that we’re bringing them into the hybrid to keep them apart. That’s a challenge for teachers who really, really, really want to connect with their students. They really want to do that.”

Since the former ways of connecting with students will not be workable under the hybrid model, Dr. Bavis said, “we have to relearn how to do those things in much the same way we’ve relearned how to do these things in the in the remote environment. The hybrid environment is different yet again, and it’s a step. It’s a critical step, I think, to getting to a full in-person instruction.”

The value in the hybrid model, Dr. Bavis said, is that it is a transitional step. “But as an upgrade – if we are thinking of this as an instructional upgrade – I’m going to tell you that it’s going to be an instructional challenge. And I just want everyone to be patient, as we implement this, to understand that we may not be able to cover the amount of material we typically would cover, because it’s a new delivery model.

“And we have to pay attention. What we’re hearing is you have to pay attention to the students in front of you, but you also have to monitor the students online. But we’re committed. We have an awesome team of teachers; they’re extraordinarily adaptable. “David Chan and his tech team are incredible. They put together the modules that we used over the summer to train our teachers, so that they could go and implement enhanced e learning. Aside from providing day-to-day support to our teachers this semester, David and his tech team are also developing professional development, in preparation for the hybrid.

“So all of that is to say that it’s a necessary step. And we’re going to rise to the challenge.

But I want to acknowledge upfront that this is going to be challenging, it’s going to be disruptive. And for our students, it’s not going to feel the same.”

ETHS a Vaccination Site?

At the Jan. 11 District 202 Board meeting, Superintendent Eric Witherspoon said he informed Cook County Department of Health officials that ETHS could serve as a vaccination site.

“I’ve indicated to them that we would hope to be a vaccination site where people who are in Phase 1b – which includes essential workers and educators – could be vaccinated right here at ETHS.”

He also said the Cook County Health Department officials asked whether ETHS would be willing to allow educators from other districts to receive vaccinations there.

He added, “I said, ‘Absolutely.’ We will cooperate with that in any way we can.”

Mary Gavin

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...