Marcus Campbell and Eric Witherspoon.

Unlike elementary and middle schools in Evanston, it does not appear that Evanston Township High School will resume in-person classes until a significant number of staff members are vaccinated against COVID-19.

In Friday’s edition of “ETown Live,” District 202’s YouTube program, Superintendent Eric Witherspoon said, “For me and for ETHS, being able to get our employees vaccinated is critical” in deciding if and when to bring educators and students back to the high school building for classes. ETHS has been on remote learning since the pandemic hit last March.

Witherspoon said, “When we know that all of our employees have had the opportunity to be vaccinated, it will be a game changer at ETHS.” He added that he is “very hopeful” that there will be vaccination opportunities by March 1.

Earlier this week, Evanston/Skokie District 65, the lower grades feeder district for ETHS, did begin its hybrid model, without vaccines for staff. (There is not enough vaccine available right now anyway). About half of District 65’s 7,300 students are back in their buildings, while the rest continue on remote learning.

Witherspoon did not mention District 65 by name, but indicated one reason ETHS is not having in-person classes now is the higher coronavirus transmission rates among high school students versus the rate for younger children.

The superintendent said ETHS is constantly monitoring government health and safety guidelines and coronavirus positivity rates, but “we want to make sure we get it right for our school and for our employees.”

Last week, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines for the safe reopening of schools, which called for a variety of health and sanitation measures, as well as linking the decision to reopen with the prevalence of COVID -19 in the surrounding community.

The CDC also said teacher vaccinations, while desirable, should not have to be required. Witherspoon noted that ETHS is reviewing the CDC guidelines, which are just that, suggestions, not requirements.

Witherspoon noted that 52% of District 202’s employees are non-white. COVID positivity rates for black and brown individuals, he explained, are 1.4 to 1.7 times higher than the white rate, and the death rate for non-whites is 2.8 times higher.

Deciding whether to have in-person school is a delicate balancing act. ETHS principal Marcus Campbell said, “We’re not trying to choose between what educators need and what students need. We’re trying to meet people where they are and continue to make adjustments in the process.”

Campbell said even if classes do resume in the high school this semester, remote learning would still be offered as well.

Some students did return to the building this week for “in-person experiences,” a variety of voluntary activities such as sports, arts, and enrichment. Campbell said combining remote academic learning with optional in-person experiences is “very unique to ETHS.” Hundreds of students, administrators said, have already signed up.

However the rest of the school year plays out, Witherspoon said ETHS will have both a virtual graduation ceremony, as was done last year, and some type of in-person graduation as well. It’s just uncertain exactly what the in-person ceremony will look like.

Currently, Illinois bans groups of more than 50 people in a single room due to COVID-19 regulations, not exactly possible with more than 800 graduates plus friends and family members. Witherspoon said “we simply don’t know” what coronavirus restrictions will be in effect in late May, so it’s impossible to plan graduation specifics right now.

But the superintendent said “we may need to split it up into 50 graduates at a time, but we will have some sort of graduation where the seniors can wear their caps and gowns.”

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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