After a two-week hiatus for winter break, Evanston Township High School reopened for in-person instruction on Monday, Jan. 10 amid ongoing concerns about the omicron wave of COVID-19. After 129 students tested positive during the week ending Dec. 17, the school moved classes online for the last five instructional days of the fall semester in an “adaptive pause” meant to curb the spread of the virus.
Because of the shift to online learning prior to winter break, Monday also marked the first day back in the school building for students since an hours-long lockdown that occurred on Dec. 16 after ETHS security officials caught two students carrying loaded handguns in their backpacks.
In an email to students and families on Tuesday, Jan. 11, Superintendent Eric Witherspoon said school officials are conducting a review of the lockdown in collaboration with the Evanston Police Department, and he noted that there is no ongoing threat to school safety.
“There is no evidence of students bringing guns to school to use them at ETHS; the investigation since December 16 shows that the students had the weapons for personal protection based on violence in the community,” Witherspoon wrote in his Tuesday message. “That said, ETHS is consulting with safety experts and using research to help determine what actions, such as installing metal detectors, may support a safer school building.”
But between the continued uncertainty of the pandemic, fears about violence at school and overarching mental health concerns, parents and teachers alike have acknowledged increased student needs during this academic year. At the last ETHS District 202 School Board meeting in December, Associate Principal for Student Services Dr. Taya Kinzie said suicide risk assessments conducted at ETHS increased 100% from fall 2019 to fall 2021. In that same time period, according to Kinzie, student psychiatric hospitalizations increased 50%.
With those statistics in mind, ETHS hosted a virtual Family Talk Series event Tuesday night on youth suicide prevention with Dr. Jonathan Singer, a District 65 parent and Loyola University Chicago professor. In his presentation, Singer highlighted that a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study in June of 2020 found that 25% of young adults at that time reported experiencing suicidal thoughts within the previous 30 days, up from 11% in June 2019.
Communicating with your children regularly and letting them know that you are there if they need anything can be effective strategies to support their mental health and wellbeing, Singer told parents attending Tuesday’s event.
Angelique Ketzback, the parent of an ETHS freshman and a special education paraprofessional herself, told the RoundTable that she found the gun-related lockdown that came on the heels of a mass shooting at a gas station on Green Bay Road “really unsettling” as a parent.
“I don’t feel like the school has enough support,” she said, adding that she hopes ETHS will offer more direct mental health support services to students in the future.
Ketzback also said that a group of parents has started a petition for ETHS to install some kind of weapons-detection system outside the school building, whether that be metal detectors or something else, and she said the school needs to communicate more effectively to build trust with parents and families. For example, a town hall meeting where students, parents and teachers can ask administrators directly about school safety, COVID-19, mental health needs and more would provide a much-needed open and honest discussion, she said.
Meanwhile, despite record COVID-19 case numbers in the community, ETHS and local public health officials are intent on continuing in-person school instruction. High vaccination rates among students and teachers, as well as proper mask wearing, can limit the spread of COVID-19 and the severity of illness when people do test positive, Ketzback said.
“I don’t feel like going to remote (learning) at any point right now is worth it. The vaccination rate for students is really high, the vaccination rate for teachers is really high, we need to figure something out,” she told the RoundTable in a phone interview.
“Lots of other schools and lots of other communities are able to do it, and I think Evanston schools need to be able to figure out how to do it. If it went remote, I would probably give very serious consideration to moving out of Evanston.”