At the last District 202 School Board meeting, held just two days before Evanston Township High School is scheduled to open for hybrid learning, administrators described the ongoing efforts to make the school safe for students, faculty, and staff.

A lingering question for teachers is whether the air quality in the building is as safe as administrators have said it is.

Assistant Superintendent/Principal Marcus Campbell said at the April 12 meeting the air ducts “are cleaned on a rotational yearly basis. Spaces that do not have an HVAC system, such as the gyms and the fieldhouse, have exhaust fans that run at all times during the building occupation. The air moved by the exhaust fans is replaced in these locations with air from outside that has gone through the roof filters.”

Staff members are encouraged to open windows when they are using a room and close the window afterward. In addition to the life safety inspection from the North Cook Regional Office of Education, the administration contracted with Midwest Environmental Consulting Services to complete testing for COVID-19, Dr. Campbell said.

Plexiglas Barriers and Same-Direction Seating

That company on March 24 tested air samples at the ETHS Day School and the Transition Center, he said. Desks, tables, and seats for staff and students are at least six feet apart. “Classrooms have been arranged to allow for a maximum number of students and desks and tables as well, maintaining social distance in every direction,” Dr. Campbell said. Desks and tables have been arranged in columns and rows so that desks all face the same direction, and such areas as computer labs and theater rooms will ensure the students face the same direction and maintain the six-foot distance.

Plexiglas barrier in offices, classrooms, and other public areas will protect staff who work in these locations. Staff offices are arranged to accommodate social-distancing protocols, and where that was not possible, alternate office space has been provided.

‘Wear a Mask, Take the Stairs If Possible, Walk on the Right, Use Hand Sanitizer’

Signs, cones, markers, and flags advise students of where to go and how to get there, as well as where they may not go.

Signs in the hallways point to the directions for foot traffic, with the instruction to “keep moving,” Dr. Campbell said. Staircases are designated either “up” or “down” and cones or flags, or both, divide all the hallways for directional traffic.  There are hand-sanitizer stations in the hallways for anyone to use – and frequently.

Common areas such as the main lobby and the atrium have been marked as closed, so students will not be allowed to congregate there.

Other Safety Protocols

Classrooms and offices will be cleaned and sanitized at the conclusion of each day, and high-touch surfaces more frequently.

The school will provide personal protective equipment (PPE) to staff, students, and visitors as needed, Dr. Campbell said. In addition, each classroom will have a kit containing an extra mask, gloves, hand sanitizer and sanitizing spray, paper towels, and other items. Teachers and staff may request additional kits.

“So we believe that we are following all of the appropriate mitigation efforts, as outlined by the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], IDPH [the Illinois Department of Public Health] and other agencies,” Dr. Campbell concluded.

Air Quality Concerns Delay MOU With Teachers Council

Earlier this week, the RoundTable received news about negotiations for a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the Teachers’ Council (TC, the teachers union) and the District.

According to the document, the Teachers Council’s executive committee “has been working diligently for the past 12 months to ensure the health and safety of our members as we continue to provide the most effective learning environment for our students. Because of the change in working conditions that the pandemic has brought about, TC assembled a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) team of GionMatthias Schelbert (TC President), Rick Cardis (TC President-Elect), Dave Allen, and Jeff Totsch.”

Mr. Schelbert confirmed to the RoundTable that he had written the document and distributed it to TC members but said it was not intended for public distribution. He also, however, confirmed its accuracy.

The MOU team was charged with developing a document that would become part of the teachers’ contract “and allow us to safely transition from teaching remote learning classes to simultaneous hybrid instruction.”

Mr. Schelbert said Teachers Council has traditionally had a positive relationship with the District. “Unlike other districts, we don’t have an adversarial relationship with the administration.”

The document lists 20 discussion topics, 18 of which are listed as “Tentative Agreements” and two as “Unresolved Issues.”

The tentative agreements deal with personal protective equipment, COVID testing and dashboard, contact tracing, certified staff in-building work-day requirements, accommodations, whistleblower language for COVID-related violations, self-quarantine guidelines and procedures, use of sick days, transparent communication and rationale for changes to the hybrid model, staff-only entrances, academic freedom, childcare (Little Kits and K-8), AM Support, duties, masking standards for students, comprehensive disinfecting schedule of classrooms and shared and co-teaching spaces, grading policy, and managing staff and students who become ill at school.

The two unresolved issues are the quality of the air in the building and adjustments to sub pay to reflect the 65-minute periods.

With the building set to open in about 12 hours, Teachers Council President Mr. Schelbert spoke with the RoundTable.

Teachers Council acknowledged that the administration said it had taken all the required actions and each building had been tested for COVID-19 but asked for an independent consultant to verify this. Their recommendation was to use the Certified Industrial Hygienist that was used by Chicago Teachers Union and the Illinois Federation of Teachers.

What the District provided was a snapshot, Mr. Schelbert said – a glimpse of the air quality on one day in March. What TC is requesting is that an outside inspector be hired to confirm the air quality in the District’s buildings – the high school itself, the Day School, and the Transition House – to ensure they are “safe for all parties and that the changes/upgrades that ETHS completed on all three buildings adhere to the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) building recommendations for ventilation in schools,” according to the document.

The request is not a intended as a negative reflection on the building team headed by Clarence Gregory, Mr. Schelbert said. “They have been dedicated for the last 12 months to keeping the building safe. They have done a great job. We just want to confirm it. Bu not having this evaluation, we can’t.”

As an alternative, Teachers Council would accept reports of the inspections the District has commissioned, but that request has also been rejected.

The District’s denial of these requests “is a head-scratcher,” Mr. Schelbert said.

The document says, “ETHS administrators continue to state that they have made the recommended changes to the ventilation system. TC will continue to ask ETHS administration to provide reports by an independent/third party HVAC professional to demonstrate that CDC guidelines on ventilation were being met for the current occupancy level of each space within the building. TC will also continue to advocate for an independent verification of the HVAC systems.”

The RoundTable asked Superintendent Eric Witherspoon by email how ETHS would address the concerns expressed by the Teachers Council. He responded, “Last night’s [April 12] board meeting provides abundant information about our preparation and safety precautions for hybrid learning. Our teachers’ union has all the information and documentation from a highly credentialed independent contractor we hired to assure the air quality in our building. We have been relentlessly consistent and adamant ever since the pandemic started: Our top priority in all the decisions we have been making is the health and safety of our students and staff. Hundreds of juniors are here at ETHS right now taking the SAT, and we’re excited about school opening with hybrid instruction tomorrow.”

Reiterating his confidence in Mr. Gregory and the building team and the generally positive relationship between Teachers’ Council and the District. Mr. Schelbert said, “We’re all going to show up tomorrow. … We want to go back to the building – we just want it to be safe.”

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...