Parents await students at King Arts School, where in-person learning for middle school students was suspended Wednesday due to COVID-19 concerns. (Photo by Bessie Mbadugha)

Evanston/Skokie School District 65 Wednesday afternoon announced an “adaptive pause” to in-person learning at four of the district’s five middle schools: Chute, Haven, Nichols and King Arts. Students at those schools will conduct their class days remotely on Thursday, Dec. 23, the last scheduled day of school before winter break. Middle school classes at the Dr. Bessie Rhodes School of Global Studies will go on as scheduled in-person.

Superintendent Devon Horton communicated the shift to online learning at the middle schools amid increases in COVID-19 cases across the district. 124 students have tested positive for the virus since Friday, Dec. 17, with the worst outbreaks concentrated at the four middle schools.

“This decision overall is a result of rising COVID-19 cases and the number of students currently in quarantine who were identified as close contacts,” Horton wrote in the announcement. “In addition, this has an inevitable impact on staffing which is critical to the safe operation of these classrooms.”

Evanston Township High School had already shifted to remote learning starting Dec. 17 due to COVID-19 case counts at the school, and new positive cases continue to rise across the city as a whole. Evanston reported 132 new cases on Wednesday, the second highest daily total ever registered during the pandemic. That number brings the seven-day average of daily new cases up to another record of 113.

But recent news from South Africa, where scientists first detected the highly contagious omicron variant of COVID-19, could be a reason for optimism, according to public health experts. A rapid rise in cases there in early December has recently been followed by a rapid decline in new positives, suggesting the omicron wave may die down as quickly as it started.

Regardless, health officials are still saying that research into omicron remains preliminary, and the best way to ward off infection is to get vaccinated, get a booster shot if eligible, wear masks in crowded indoor spaces and maintain a safe distance from others whenever possible.

Meanwhile, both ETHS and District 65 are sticking to their plans for returning in-person after winter break. On Dec. 21, the high school announced new testing plans for all students to complete a COVID-19 test on Jan. 11 or Jan. 12 during the first week back at school. ETHS also intends to test all students, both vaccinated and unvaccinated, every week starting Tuesday, Jan. 18.

“With winter break upon us, it is critical that mitigation efforts continue in our community during the adaptive pause, during winter break, and when school resumes fully in-person on January 10,” Horton said Wednesday. “Any additional mitigation measures will be communicated with staff and families prior to return.”

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Duncan Agnew

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...