Evanston/Skokie School District 65 will cut the distance between student classroom desks down from six feet apart to three feet, in light of new coronavirus safety guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control.

Superintendent Devon Horton told the Board of Education Monday night that the new spacing should mean more students will be able to return for in-person learning after spring break (March 29-April 2).

Horton said about 3,600 students, roughly half of the district’s K-8 population, have returned for the in-person option under the system’s hybrid model. The remainder are still on remote learning, many, but not all, by choice.

Some middle school parents who wanted their children to return have complained about that not taking place. District 65 has reduced the number of students in the three middle schools due to COVID-related social distancing. Priority was also given to students in several groups, such as those from low income families or who are English language learners, which meant there were not enough spaces for some other youngsters.

However, Horton said that come this fall, “any student who wants to return can come five days a week and have a certified teacher in front of them.” A remote learning option will also be offered.

As expected, the Board approved $1.9 million in budget cuts for the next school year. The reductions include the layoff of two cafeteria workers and three library assistants, as well as eliminating four reading specialist positions through reorganization of how academic intervention is provided.

In addition to the reductions, the superintendent also said that administrators will go without raises next year, saving $160,000. He also said one administration position “for sure” would be eliminated, and another is “very likely.” Specifics will be made public soon.

The Board meeting also saw what could perhaps be seen as another stop on the District 65 Apology Tour 2021. Horton said some questions on recent community surveys “have undeniably caused harm.”

One question, on a survey about the school calendar, asked if the district should consider remaining open on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, instead of closing as is now the case. (The survey also asked about Good Friday and some secular national holidays).

Following some community pushback, Horton said “we are not looking to eliminate Jewish holy days” as days off.

A different survey, about possible budget cuts, included special education among a variety of services which respondents were asked to rank in terms of importance. There was pushback to that as well. The advocacy group Evanston CASE, in a letter read at the meeting, said the question was “grossly insensitive” and displayed a “fundamental misunderstanding” of special education.

The superintendent said the district will continue to prioritize the needs of students with disabilities.

“We want equity and peace for all,” he said, noting “we missed the mark” on those questions. It was “not our intent to be dismissive” to sacred religious holidays nor to special education students and their families, he said.

The district had also just apologized for using offensive stereotypes about Indigenous people in a third grade lesson about why it is wrong to use stereotypes. The vetting and review policies for such materials will be changed.

The Board did unanimously pass a “Land Acknowledgement” resolution, to be read at the beginning of every full board session and committee meeting. The document outlines how local land was once home to many Native American tribes, and describes wrongs that Indigenous people suffered. The document also mentions wrongs perpetrated against enslaved Black citizens, and calls upon the public to learn more by visiting relevant websites or historical societies.

As originally proposed, the “Acknowledgement” took three-and-a-half minutes to read out loud. Board President Anya Tanyavutti made some changes, tightening up the language and shortening the content, so the “Acknowledgement” now takes about two minutes.

Board member Rebeca Mendoza suggested only reading the document at the beginning of each trimester, instead of at every meeting, to make it more of a special statement. That, however, did not make it into the final version. Board president Tanyavutti said it may be possible to change how the acknowledgement is used in the future, “if it’s not having the impact that we hope.”

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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