Having passed the halfway mark in the fall semester, Evanston Township High School officials acknowledged on Oct.12 that remote learning will continue at ETHS through the semester.

Superintendent Eric Witherspoon acknowledged that a decision about next semester would have to be considered in the next few weeks and said, “We’d like to give a 30-day notice.”  He also hinted that, depending on how safe they felt they could keep the students, staff and community, administrators could postpone the reopening until summer or even next fall.

COVID-19 Risk Metrics

Administrators said they are closely monitoring metrics from the Harvard Global Health Initiative, recommendations from the Illinois State Board of Elections and statistics and information from the Illinois Department of Public Health as well as from nearby school districts, said Pete Bavis, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction at ETHS.

Administrators are looking at four metrics, each as applied to suburban Cook County:  the test positivity rate of 3% recommended by the Harvard Global Health Initiative; the rolling seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people; the rolling seven-day average of new cases; and the rolling seven-day average of new youth cases.

Dr. Bavis also noted the recent study from Northwestern University that concluded that 20% of Chicagoans carry COVID-19 antibodies and the article in Pro Publica that reported COVID-19 outbreaks in 44 schools, without naming the schools.

“Metrics change weekly,” he said.

Any reopening plan, Dr. Bavis said, will be based on guidance from the Illinois State Board of Education, the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control.

“We also have our guiding principles, which we've held true to this semester,” said Dr. Bavis. “And those again, are worthy of review: maintain a healthy and safe environment for all students and staff; maintain our commitment to equity; provide meaningful engaging academic experiences for all students; address the social and emotional needs of all students and staff; and provide consistency and stability for all students and staff; and provide professional development for staff that enhances e-learning.”

When Will In-Person (Hybrid) Learning Begin?

In late summer, ETHS officials created then quickly abandoned a hybrid fall reopening plan. At the Oct. 12 meeting, the Board did not specifically discuss plans for the second semester, but administrators’ comments veered toward maintaining remote learning perhaps until summer or next fall.

Dr. Witherspoon noted that, under the hybrid-learning model, each student would be in the building only one day each week because of space considerations, but “employees would be exposed to those thousands of people coming in to the building.”

He also said the hybrid model is not intended to bring students together but to keep them apart: six feet of social distancing in the classrooms, in the hallways, in the spaces where we would be serving lunch.”

The Illinois State Board of Education requires students to wear a mask and sit face-forward in a classroom, Dr. Witherspoon said.  “Students have to enter and leave the classroom six feet apart. And they have to be in assigned seats at all times.” Students would follow the same pattern every day, even during passing periods.

“We're going to be on e-learning for this first semester. … And I anticipate unless something dramatically positive happens with COVID, and all of a sudden COVID is not a risk, I think we should all have this mindset. And I'm asking students in the community and the mindset that we will be on remote through the semester.

“We'll use these metrics to make a determination about what we may or may not be able to do at the start of second semester, which would start right after the winter holidays. Our goal is to be able to give people a 30-day heads up or notice so that they would be able to plan accordingly,” he said.

The virus is a continuing and often deadly threat, he said. “We're just trying to deal with what we understand in the best way we can to keep these kids safe, to keep the adults in the school safe, and to keep the community safe.”

Board member Pat Maunsell said, “There may be openings at some point in the future that allow us to do something different. … It's not a date certain. And that's really hard. And we're all struggling with that. ... We're paying attention to everything. And I think that's what we can do right now. And I think that's a lot actually to do right now.”

Board member Jude Laude said, “I think what leadership of this District has decided to do is to choose clarity over certainty.”

Board member Gretchen Livingston said she agreed with the focus on safety of students and staff and stressed the need to inform the community. “I don’t think there is such a thing as too much transparency in this kind of environment.”

She added, “I think that we all need to be patient as we move through this. And I think our community has been patient. I mean, occasionally frustration bubbles up. But I think, generally speaking, our community has been patient and has worked with us and been able to deal with the frustrations recognizing that so many people are dealing with similar or even worse frustrations.”

Board member Stephanie Teterycz asked, “If we get to a certain percentage in the population where hybrid would be a possibility, what would that percentage be? What would it look like?”

She said she welcomed feedback from her colleagues and the administrators about her sense of what was being said, which was “‘Do online [learning] and protect everybody from [COVID-19]. .. An  outbreak or whatever could possibly happen even in a hybrid situation [so] just do online, or wait until wait until we really know it's safe.’”

Ms. Teterycz said that, considering the energy and management required to pivot to hybrid learning that would be safe and well managed “I just wonder if we should just level with the community and say, ‘Look, it's going to be a very high bar to get back to any kind of in person school. And this is what the high bar is. And, until then, we're, we're risk averse. And you know, and we're going to do the best we possibly can to serve every student in this community.’”

Dr. Witherspoon said, “I think as we get to the end of the semester – and we've seen what fall and winter are bringing with COVID and if we have any idea about a vaccine, and when distribution would start and things like that – we will have a much better picture to say, ‘Well, maybe it makes sense to start a hybrid, or maybe it makes no sense at all.’

“That is exactly the kind of thing that we are trying to monitor right now. … I think that that's exactly what's going to have to start to develop in the next several weeks.”

Board President Pat Savage-Williams said, “When we come back, how we come back and assure that our students and our staff are safe – that’s going to be a big discussion.”