ETHS board members at Monday night's meeting.

While many school districts nationwide have seen student performance plummet during remote learning in the pandemic, school officials say that has not been the case at Evanston Township High School.

Assistant Superintendent Pete Bavis told the District 202 Board of Education Monday night that first semester grades this school year are consistent with those in the first semester the year before, when school was in normal session.

He says 77% of grades this year were A’s and B’s, compared to 74% a year earlier. And only 3% of grades were F’s in each semester.

In fact, the percentage of A’s actually went up during the pandemic (58% versus 47% the year before), and the percentage of B’s went down.

Bavis said “nationally, a very large failure rate was seen in the first semester” of remote learning, but the F percentage at ETHS remained unchanged. There is one slight difference, however. This year, those failing a remote learning class at ETHS get a “COVID F” rather than the traditional one. A “COVID F” shows up as an F on the report card, but is not included in computing a student’s grade point average. The good old fashioned F added a zero to the GPA.

But if there is a “COVID-F,” has there also been a “COVID-A?” Is it possible that, even subconsciously, teachers are giving out higher marks because students have had to endure so much during the ongoing virus and remote education?

Veteran science teacher GionMatthias Schelbert tells Evanston Now he’s wondered “am I compensating for the pandemic or is something else at play?”

Schelbert is head of the Teachers Council, the union for ETHS teachers, but spoke based on his own experiences and not on behalf of the bargaining unit.

Schelbert says he’s noticed the same pattern of more A’s and fewer B’s in his astronomy classes, but says “I definitely did not lower my standards.” Schelbert says he has combined some portions of the curriculum, not making things easier, but rather allowing more attention to the most important concepts. “I am not compromising the integrity of the curriculum,” he says.

Because remote classes are 70 minutes long vs. 42 minutes for in-person school, Schelbert says, that may be helping students grasp the content through more time for in-class questions. He also wonders if perhaps less time getting to and from school, and the ease of just taking a class at home may also be helping. Attendance, he notes, is actually up.

“I don’t know if there’s a single cause,” for more A’s, he says.

Assistant Superintendent Bavis tells Evanston Now that while the “overall distribution of grades is strikingly similar to last year,” he can’t speculate as to the shift to more A’s and fewer B’s. Bavis does not “see a corresponding shift in D’s and F’s.” He says “ETHS will continue to monitor grade distributions by semester going forward to identify any long term shifts.”

Bavis said some schools have abandoned the usual A-F grading scale during the pandemic, but he said ETHS kept the scale in remote learning because “we felt it was important to have consistency in expectations in a very inconsistent year.”

While ETHS leaders hope to return students to the classroom some time this semester with a hybrid system (part remote, part in the building), there is no timetable for that due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

But next Tuesday the school will begin a variety of voluntary “in-person experiences” for students at the ETHS campus, including non-credit enrichment programs, arts and crafts, sports and music. There will also be a “Safe Center” in the building, for students who might feel more comfortable doing their remote learning away from home.

Just in case ETHS stays on remote learning longer than hoped, Activities Director Nichole Boyd told the Board that the activities are being scheduled through May.

While ETHS is not bringing the students back yet for classes, Evanston/Skokie District 65, the elementary and middle school feeder for the high school, is returning students to in-person classes in a hybrid plan next Tuesday.

District 202 Superintendent Eric Witherspoon addressed the obvious question … why is ETHS staying on remote learning, while other schools in the same community are at least going hybrid?

Witherspoon said the on-campus activities are “a different structure than a school day of classes,” while providing students with a chance to safely socialize while getting some fun and creative things to do.

He said the in-person activities “offer lots of activities but do not create the same safety issues which classes would do.” The activities, all following COVID health and safety regulations, will be in small “pods.” Students would come to their activity, then leave.

Under the hybrid plan ETHS has considered, 25% of the school’s nearly 4,000 students, along with the entire 600 person staff, would be in the building each day. With class changes every hour, the large number of people in the hallways could increase the potential spread of the coronavirus.

“Our staff does not want to get COVID,” the superintendent said. “We’re starting something which can manage safety much more carefully.”

Witherspoon also said whenever the COVID-19 vaccine becomes more available, the high school could be made available as a mass vaccination site for ETHS employees. “But there is simply not enough vaccine available for our whole staff,” in the area right now, he said. “Not even close.”

Related: Two-thirds of parents voice concern about K-12 students’ learning losses (Northwestern Now)

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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