At the most recent gathering of the Evanston Township High School District 202 School Board on Tuesday, Jan. 18, school officials provided an overview of the current COVID-19 situation at the high school amid the ongoing surge in cases from the omicron variant’s impact.
Based on conversations with the Evanston Health and Human Services Department last month, ETHS began COVID-19 testing for all students, regardless of vaccination status, on Jan. 11. The school reported a record 311 new positive cases among students between Friday, Jan. 7 and Friday, Jan. 14. Numbers are updated weekly on the ETHS COVID-19 dashboard.
According to Associate Principal for Student Services Taya Kinzie, who leads the high school’s COVID-19 response team, the 311 new cases provide a somewhat misleading picture of the current positivity rate because 183 of those cases occurred either during the December “adaptive pause” to in-person learning or during winter break. Parents, students and families had not reported those positive cases to the school until returning to the building for the second semester last week, she said.
Kinzie said 122 students tested positive through saliva tests administered at ETHS on Jan. 11 and 12, and 128 students were still in isolation due to COVID-19 infection as of Jan. 14. Of the 3,621 students enrolled at the high school, 76 have opted out of weekly testing, according to Kinzie.
Similar to the situation among students, ETHS also reported 41 new staff positives last week, but 29 of those cases occurred during the adaptive pause or over winter break.
“We are not minimizing the number at all, but we also want to make sure to keep in mind what the different pieces of the facts are,” Kinzie said.
Also at Tuesday’s meeting, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Pete Bavis explained to Board Members that local school districts no longer have the power to dictate their pandemic responses entirely on their own. Last year, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed an executive order allowing individual districts to decide how to proceed with schooling during the pandemic, but a new executive order this year requires all Illinois public schools to prioritize in-person instruction, according to Bavis.
Based on guidelines from the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Illinois State Board of Education, districts can temporarily switch to remote learning, as ETHS did in December, if the sheer number of COVID-19 positives makes contact tracing and isolation ineffective or unfeasible. State law also explicitly says that local school districts cannot enter an adaptive pause to in-person learning due to staff or teacher shortages, Bavis said.
As a result, both Bavis and Kinzie said ETHS remains committed to remaining open for in-person school, as planned, and the school will continue universal masking, social distancing during lunches, weekly testing and other protocols to prioritize safety while remaining in-person at the school building.
The ETHS staff, administration, students and community members have “stepped up” to make this school year happen in-person as smoothly as possible, Kinzie said.
“I just would like to say that this is hard, and I know we get that intellectually, but I don’t think I can state enough how complicated this school year has been,” Assistant Superintendent and Principal Marcus Campbell said at Tuesday’s meeting. “We thought last year was difficult. This is a different difficult, and stress levels have been high, anxiety is high because of all the uncertainty and sickness and loss.”
Before staff members provided the COVID-19 update, ETHS student involvement and activities leaders presented data on student extracurricular participation during the 2020-21 academic year. Overall, 58% of all students at ETHS last year participated in at least one extracurricular activity, according to the board presentation.
Of those, 37% of students played a sport, 24% engaged in community service, 16% participated in the fine arts through music or theater programs and 28% were involved in student activities or clubs.
More than 65% of white and Asian students at ETHS participated in an extracurricular activity, and about 40% of Black and Hispanic students were involved in at least one activity. Overall, 69% of non-low-income students, compared with 28% of low-income students, joined an extracurricular activity.
Activities staff and board members noted that comparing data year-over-year would be a futile exercise given all the challenges of the pandemic and remote learning last year, but several people voiced a particular concern about reaching out to students of color and low-income students to encourage and facilitate involvement at ETHS outside the classroom.
“Thank you for noticing who’s missing. It’s been a hard year, and a lot has happened, and you can’t really compare numbers because it’s been such an unusual year,” Board President Pat Savage-Williams said. “But I still notice how few students of color, African American students, are present, and some of these activities, we know, tend to be missing those students.”
ETHS Athletic Director Chris Livatino also added that he has contacted every youth sports organization in Evanston to set up one-on-one conversations about how to fundamentally change the structure of the system to break down barriers to participation. He said making athletics, especially youth sports, more accessible to low-income families and people of color would probably be the “most significant thing” he does in his tenure at ETHS.
“We have to break up the system of how things are done with youth participation in sports and activities in Evanston, bottom line,” Livatino said. “We have to do it, and we have to do it at a young age so [children of color] feel comfortable, so they feel accepted, so they feel wanted and needed to be involved in those programs.”