ETHS teachers question reopening plans

Teachers at Evanston Township High School are giving low marks to the ETHS school reopening framework — or giving it an incomplete at best.

From a history teacher: “Almost unanimously, we think it’s a bad idea.”

From a psychology teacher: “The timing of everything is very concerning to me.”

And from a science teacher, who is also president of the Teachers’ Council, the union for more than 300 ETHS teachers and other education professionals: “We’re feeling overwhelmed and blindsided.”

Yesterday, the ETHS Board of Education approved the framework for a hybrid re-opening plan for the school’s 3,800 students and 600 employees.

Under that framework, students will be divided into four groups of 950 kids. Those blocks will rotate between in-person classes in school and remote learning at home on their computers. More details will be released by the ETHS administration on Friday.

But teachers are worried. GionMatthias Schelbert, a science teacher and president of the union, says, “The big elephant in the room is health and safety, plain and simple.”

And under the framework, teachers will have to be in the room with that elephant. As the plan was explained Monday, students will only attend in-person school two days over a two-week period. But teachers, who have hundreds of different kids, will be in school every day.

History teacher Rick Cardis says teachers could potentially face exposure to COVID-19 in every classroom. And students could face it whenever they’re in the building. “It’s such a big risk to take for the benefit of students seeing their teacher every two weeks,” he says.

Then there’s the issue of teacher input into the reopening process. A survey was sent to teachers Monday, after the reopening framework was released. That survey is due Friday at 4 p.m.

But the more specific reopening plan is supposed to be released that same day, leaving teachers to wonder how their views will be taken into consideration.  “This is not normal for how things operate in our district,” says Cardis. “Usually there’s more robust input from teachers.”

Teachers are not only worried about their students’ health, and their own. They’re also afraid of bringing the virus home. “I have family members who fall into high risk categories,” says psychology teacher Sabrina Ehmke.

And there are lots of specific work issues yet to be explained. If a teacher has to quarantine for 14 days, does that teacher have to use sick days, which could be basically wiped out for the entire year? Will substitute teachers want to show up to replace a teacher with coronavirus?  And if all students are supposed to wear masks, what if a student has a medical excuse not to wear one? “Am I still required to work with them?,” Ehmke wonders.

The Teachers’ Council union contract may play a role in all of this. One section states “The Board shall make an effort to provide a classroom/work area that is free from hazards to health and safety….”

While a pandemic was not likely in anyone’s mind when that language was crafted, it does say “hazards to health and safety.”  Could that apply?

Then there are questions about remote learning. ETHS and other Illinois schools went to virtual education in mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic, and ended the school year without reopening for in-person classes.

The fall 2020 framework has the first three weeks as virtual learning for all students.  The hybrid model begins after Labor Day. “Why Labor Day?,” union president Schelbert wonders. He says there has not been enough explanation of the proposed schedule.

Teachers say they fully understand the challenges facing Board members and the administration. “I’m grateful for their work,” says Ehmke.

But ETHS teachers have seen COVID cases increasing around the country. They’ve seen other districts which had planned to have hybrid education switch to all remote. That’s happening in Berkeley, California, a college town not unlike Evanston.

They have also seen news of a teacher passing away from COVID in Arizona, a teacher who taught remotely from a classroom with two other educators. It raises the question — if school reopens in person, even if it’s hybrid, will teachers come back?

History teacher Cardis expects a “high percentage” not to return. “One of my best friends has diabetes and hypertension. He’s not coming in,” Cardis says.

ETHS educators want the community to know that they want to teach. “I’m a committed professional. This is my lifetime work. I miss my students dearly,” says Ehmke.

But these educators also say that unless a lot of very critical questions are answered satisfactorily, remote learning may be far better and safer than showing up at school.

From a history teacher: “I just can’t see a rational basis for putting so many people at risk.”

From a psychology teacher: “There is nothing I want more as a teacher than to be back in the classroom with my students, but not at the expense of their health or mine.”

And from a science teacher and president of the ETHS teachers’ union: “We all want to go back.  Nobody wants remote learning. But it must be safe. If it’s not safe how do you expect us to teach our kids and how do we expect them to learn?”

keywords » COVID-19

Jeff Hirsh

Jeff Hirsh

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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