Students, parents, and teachers at Evanston Township High School “can anticipate being on e-learning for the rest of this semester” unless there is a fast and dramatic change in the COVID-19 situation, which seems unlikely.

Superintendent Eric Witherspoon told the District 202 Board of Education Monday night, “We should all be of this mindset that the rest of the semester” will be on remote learning.

ETHS has been on e-learning since the school year began, because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Witherspoon said regional health metrics will be used to determine what to do next semester, which begins after winter break. “Unless COVID disappears,” he said, “we would not be in a full in-person model” then, but would use a hybrid system if it is medically safe.

Among those metrics are the COVID positivity rate in Illinois Region 10, which includes Evanston. Anything over 3 percent is considered unacceptable. Witherspoon said the current seven day rolling average in the region is 5.5 percent.

Under a hybrid plan, each of the 3,600 ETHS students would have in-person classes four days a month, rotated so no more than one quarter of those students would be in the building each day. The remainder of a student’s courses would continue remotely.

It’s uncertain if ETHS will go to hybrid learning next semester, but will apparently not do so any sooner. Principal Marcus Campbell said, “The risks and restrictions of hybrid” are too great right now. “It’s just not safe at the moment” for students and teachers to be in school, he said. In fact, some schools which went to hybrid recently have stopped, at least temporarily.

Last week, Glenbrook North and Glenbrook South high schools began bringing some students back for hybrid education, but had to return to remote when two maintenance employees were diagnosed with COVID. Campbell said on-again, off-again changes like that are disruptive to learning.

New Trier Township High School also returned to at-home learning from a hybrid model this week after a jump in COVID-19 cases in the area.

Board member Stephanie Teterycz said holding out the possibility of any return to the classroom is unrealistic. “We should level with the community that it is a very high bar” to meet, she said.

Witherspoon said the ETHS community will be given 30 days notice on whether next semester will become hybrid, or continue remotely. If it is hybrid, the rule for everyone in school will be “masks, 100% of the time” other than when having lunch, and it would be socially distanced lunch at that.

The superintendent made it clear that ETHS officials will have to be strongly convinced that it is safe before allowing a hybrid system to begin.

“We are dealing with a deadly virus,” he said. “People are dying of it every day, and if even one death resulted” at ETHS from the virus, he said, “it would be one of the most horrific things to come out of this high school.”

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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