EVANSTON, IL — Evanston Township High School administrators expect to release a plan Friday for a return to in-person instruction in the fall before holding a town hall meeting to discuss its details next week.
School officials presented a framework for the reopening plan at Monday's school board meeting, while acknowledging it is likely to continue to develop along with evolving public health guidance for confronting the continuing coronavirus pandemic.
Superintendent Eric Witherspoon told board members administrators were doing everything in their power to minimize risks to the safety of students or staff.
"This is not a minor discussion. We're talking about life and death here, and I can't put it any more strongly," Witherspoon said.
Under the draft plan, the ETHS student body will be divided into four groups. Starting after Labor Day, students from each group would attend classes separately.
The hybrid plan of both remote and in-person classes is aimed at keeping the building's overall population of students under 1,000 on any given day, which administrators determined was about the most it could handle while following social distancing and public health guidance. The school also has about 500 employees in the 1.3 million-square-foot building during business hours.
"It's going to have to be a living document, because we know that the conditions are changing rapidly with this virus," Witherspoon said of the return-to-school plan.
The superintendent said remote learning will be much improved in the fall compared to what was offered in the spring, which he said was hampered by state officials.
"My main dissatisfaction were all of the rules that the governor and the state board threw at us that we would not really conduct a real school, as such. One example would be: grades couldn't count if they didn't raise your grade. Well, that's fine, but you tell a teenager that the grade you already had three months ago is fine if you don't want to come to school for the next three months," he said. "It was trying to do what 'we the state' could do at the time, but the guidelines they gave us did not allow us to actually conduct real school. This plan is real school."
Pete Bavis, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instructions, said e-learning would be much different than it was in the spring. Attendance will be taken. Letter grades will be assigned. There will be testing, although open books and use of the internet will be allowed, he said. The schedule also offers an opportunity for student to have direct discussions with teachers through office hours and conferences every couple weeks.
Bavis said the school was prepared to roll back to a fully remote model if an outbreak is detected at the school. Any students who show symptoms will be restricted to a designated area. And no one will be permitted not to wear a face covering when inside the school building.
"Not wearing masks is a non-starter here," he said. "If you're not wearing masks you're not going to be able to access the in-person instruction. We won't be denying you an education, you'll just simply have to work remotely."
Families may decide not to send their students to school. Students can opt for fully remote learning, which could help protect people they live with who have health conditions putting them at greater risk of complications from the coronavirus, as well as students with health concerns.
Principal Marcus Campbell said school officials focused on how to open ethically and morally while prioritizing the safety of students and staff. In addition to physical health, Campbell said the administration was also committed to caring for the mental health of ETHS students.
"We're still in a crisis. That said, we've also spent some time this summer thinking through our crisis plans should we lose one of our family members — one of our immediate family, one of our Wildkit family members," Campbell said, explaining social workers would be available for students.
"So this is such a large undertaking when we talk about social-emotional learning," he said. "Because that impact is being felt amongst our students, is being felt amongst our staff and is our first and foremost priority when we think about the operational piece, and getting people back and talking through and doing the things that we would normally do."
Administrators are working to meet the needs of students with special needs and individualized education programs on a case-by-case basis, the principal said.
Campbell also said the district was working on ways for students and staff to declare that they are not showing symptoms of COVID-19 before being allowed into the building. Only essential visitors will be permitted in.
There will be no physical education and no access to lockers. Stairwells and hallways will be designated one-way. A plan for extracurricular sports has yet to be determined.
Evanston/Skokie District 65 administrators intend to release their return-to-school plan later this month.
A livestreamed "E-Town Hall" event to discuss the ETHS reopening plan is scheduled for 6 p.m. on July 22. Questions may be submitted ahead of the meeting.
Witherspoon appealed to parents and students to work together to create a healthy environment.
"This will not be the old ETHS," the superintendent said. "This is not the ETHS that we left. And until we can guarantee the safety of all these students, hopefully with a vaccine, we're going to organize this school according to how we can have a semblance of safety and meet those CDC and those State Board of Education requirements."