Washington Elementary School. (Google Maps)

Remote learning for the first month.  Then back to in-person school for those who want it … maybe.

That’s the short version of a very long school reopening plan released this morning by Devon Horton, Evanston/Skokie District 65 superintendent, at a very long virtual school board session.

Horton is new to the district, and this was his first board meeting. “I never imagined unveiling a pandemic return to school plan,” he said. But that’s what he did.

The reopening plan has all students learning remotely, at home on their computers, from when school opens on Aug. 27, through Sept. 28.

On Sept. 29, a hybrid in-person and at-home system would start, if it is safe to do so. And that is the big if, because if the coronavirus pandemic gets worse, remote learning for all students could continue as well. That decision will come closer to the end of September.

But there’s another aspect too. Even if school does re-open in person, there would still be an all-remote learning option for those parents who want to keep it for their children.

And at this point, the district does not know how many parents want in-person school, assuming it’s possible, and how many want remote only. The school system is asking parents to pick an option by the end of this month, even though the COVID-19 situation could be completely different by the time in-person school is supposed to start.

Board member Sunith Kartha put it this way: “There is so much we are trying to do, trying to create as normal an experience as possible in times that are not normal.” 

District 65 is very diverse, economically and racially, and more than a dozen community members sent in comments which were read to the board. Several pointed out that not all parents have the option of staying home while their children take classes on their computer.

“100 per cent remote will exacerbate racial inequities,” said one District 65 resident. Another complained that that the e-learning implemented in March when Illinois schools shut down “didn’t work at all. The only thing my child learned was the ability to mess with the iPad.”

School administrators promised the new version of e-learning will be much improved … more rigorous academically, with daily individual contact between students and their teachers. There will also be an academic help line.

The in-person hybrid option has one day a week remote (Monday), the other four days in school. The additional safety and sanitation measures we’ve all come to know — masks, hand washing, disinfecting, and social distancing — will all be in effect.

But while those measures will help protect students and staff from the coronavirus, they also create a financial and logistical nightmare.  District 65 has 8,000 students. With six foot social distancing in place, there is only room for 5,963 students in the district’s 17 buildings. So if more than 5,963 kids pick the in-person option, the superintendent says there might have to be alternating student schedules. 

And then there is getting to school, and back home. School buses usually can carry 72 children. But with social distancing, an administrator told the board “there’s no way we can do that.”  $2.2 million dollars’ worth of new buses would be required, so children could have enough socially distanced seating space. 

And then comes the potential worst case bus scenario. You buy the buses, but then have to stay with remote learning all school year. You just spent $2.2 million dollars on buses you don’t need.

There are other costs for in-person school in a pandemic, including half-a-million dollars for personal protective equipment.

But no matter how many children and staff wear masks, and wash their hands, there is still tremendous fear that COVID-19 could go home with somebody.  That’s why representatives of District 65’s employee unions, representing 1,000 workers including teachers, urged the board to start the year remotely. “These are unprecedented times,” a letter from the unions stated, and during a global pandemic, the letter continued, beginning school in school itself could be dangerous.

Earlier this month, the Evanston Township High School board reversed itself and went to all-remote learning until the coronavirus situation improves. ETHS was originally going to open remotely for three weeks, and then go to a hybrid system of in person and e-learning, but the District 202 board dropped that idea after strong opposition from employee unions.

Board member Joseph Halipern said the current situation, leaving options open just in case the virus gets worse is the best thing to do until there is a vaccine. “This is where we are until the science catches up to COVID-19,” he added.

Dozens of District 65 parents added their own comments in a chat room while watching the virtual board meeting, including Mike Conroy.

Conroy and his wife Stephanie Kimmel are parents of boy who will be in 7th grade, and a girl who will be in 6th.  Assuming virus cases do not increase, Conroy said he would be “comfortable with social distancing and masks” as a way to reopen schools. He says it’s also a good idea to have e-learning first, “because it might be good to wait a few weeks to see what happens with other districts” which open without having students learn remotely.

Kimmel would like to see some sort of personal connection established between students and teachers before remote learning begins, possibly having the kids and educators meet outside, while maintaining social distancing. Her daughter is entering a new school this fall, and meeting the teacher in person, Kimmel says, will help.

Kimmel also says remote learning must be improved for it to have any value. “Some teachers are better than others with computers,” she says. “It’s not what you wanted to do when you became a teacher, learning how to set up sessions on zoom,” she adds.

They are especially concerned for their son, who is a special needs student with an individual education plan. They say they’re still waiting to hear from the appropriate department to answer some of their questions.

Still, Kimmel says District 65 is “doing a good job with what they have, but there are still so many unknowns”

All that’s definitely known now is District 65 begins school via computer on Aug. 27. Beyond that, the virus is in charge. Board member Kartha says “we are making the least bad decisions.  There are no good decisions here.”

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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