Board members at their joint virtual meeting.

It has turned into the educational equivalent of the “red state/blue state” divide in American politics. And this divide, between those calling for schools to “reopen” now, versus those supporting continued “remote” education during the coronavirus pandemic was on full display Monday night.

Nearly 50 emailed letters were read into the record at a joint meeting of the District 202 and District 65 Boards of Education. Evanston/Skokie District 65 reopened in-person classes last week, on a hybrid model which still has half of the middle and elementary school students learning at home. District 202, Evanston Township High School, is continuing remote classes for now.

The frustration on both sides of the debate was obvious. One parent “begged” ETHS to start in-person classes, saying remote learning had turned “every day into another slice of misery” for her child.

But another, who supported e-learning, urged the high school “not to spend millions of dollars to satisfy a small group of privilege-hoarding parents who are worried about their children getting into elite colleges.”

Not all the letters were as emotional as those two, but the issue has struck a nerve. There were about the same number of letters on each side. Both sides cited science. The “reopen” advocates, including some local doctors, said schools can return safely with mitigation measures but without teachers necessarily getting vaccinated. The “remote” side, which saw letters from several teachers as well from the Evanston/North Shore NAACP, said there are still too many risks, particularly with new strains of the coronavirus starting to spread.

District 65 Superintendent Devon Horton said “it feels so good” to have children back in school, but also said “we know there is a difference with high school students based on the data.”

But District 65 also has a small controversy over how in-person slots were allocated in middle school. Between limited room due to social distancing, and priority points given to those on free or reduced price lunch, in special education, or in certain other at-risk categories, Board President Anya Tanyavutti said the district has “brought back all the vulnerable middle school children,” but it was “simply not safe” to fill the middle schools with all who wanted to return. Students whose in-person requests were denied remain on remote learning.

The number of families unable to send their children back to in-person school has not been made public yet. But one parent’s letter asked District 65 to “please, please” let all students back into Haven Middle School. If that’s not done by the fall, the parent said, “we will have to send our kids somewhere else.”

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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