Evanston Township High School will have a “hybrid” learning system this fall as Evanston and the nation cope with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“This will not be the old ETHS,” Superintendent Eric Witherspoon told a virtual meeting of the District 202 Board of Education this morning.”

“It will not be the ETHS we left.” Students will receive both in-person education at ETHS and virtual classes at home. No more than a quarter of ETHS students will be in the building at one time.

Witherspoon explained that the student body will be divided into four groups of about 950 students each. While one group is in the building for classes, the other three will take the same classes online. The groups will rotate so each student receives both classroom and virtual education.

The plan is part of a framework for opening school unanimously approved by the board today.

Details will be released this Friday and ETHS staff will be surveyed before then.

There will also be a virtual town hall on Wednesday, July 22, for community input. Witherspoon said, “This will have to be a living document, because we know conditions are changing rapidly due to the virus.”

So plans could be modified as the school year goes on, particularly if there is large increase in COVID-19 cases. “It’s not incomprehensible there can be an outbreak here,” Witherspoon said. “We would then immediately go to remote learning” for all students.

While more details are coming with Friday’s written plan, the framework is based on the number of students and staff who can safely be allowed inside the 1.3 million square feet of space at ETHS.

Assistant Superintendent Marcus Campbell said, “We are doing the best we can to keep the number of bodies in the building down.” The campus will be closed to all but students, staff, and essential visitors. “We do not want people visiting ETHS,” Campbell added.

There will be social distancing in classrooms, one-way directional hallways and stairs, multiple rooms for lunch with no more than 50 occupants each, isolation rooms if someone has COVID symptoms, and mandatory facial covering. “Not wearing masks is a non-starter,” said Assistant Superintendent Pete Bavis. “We’ll put you on remote learning,” Bavis said, about students who might try to go mask-less.

School administrators are aware that some parents will not want to send their children to a school building at all. The superintendent said there will be an all-remote learning option, because “we have some parents who are scared to death.”

It was also stressed that remote learning, whether part of the hybrid system or utilized completely, will be far different than what was done after the pandemic induced in-person school shut down in Illinois in mid-March.

“We were not satisfied with e-learning in the spring,” Witherspoon said. For example, he said that under state coronavirus policies, remote learning grades could not be given unless the grade showed improvement. “The guidelines they gave us did not allow us to conduct real school.” This fall, Witherspoon said, will be “real school.” Or, as Bavis said, “This is a return to high academic expectations.”

There are still a lot of unanswered questions. Can there be sports in the fall? Witherspoon said there are no state guidelines on that yet. How many parents and even teachers will refuse in-person learning? That needs to be surveyed. And how much better will e-learning actually be than in the spring?

Classes will start Aug. 17 and the first three weeks at ETHS will be remote learning only, for all students, to get online classes running smoothly. The rotating blocks will start after Labor Day.

School reopening has become a national political issue, with the Trump administration saying schools should be in-person, or potentially risk a cutoff of federal aid. But ETHS officials say having 4,000 students and staff in the building at one time every day could be disastrous. “This is not a minor discussion,” Witherspoon said. “We’re talking about life and death 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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