ETHS surveying public on use of COVID aid.

Students, teachers and the administration all agree that despite lifting of the indoor mask mandate, most everyone at Evanston Township High School on Monday continued to wear face coverings.

Citing the decrease in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, along with the high local rate of vaccination, District 202 Superintendent Eric Witherspoon lifted the mandate.

But on Day One of no masks required, very few took advantage of the chance to go without them.

ETHS senior Bennett Fink told Evanston Now that he “would say roughly 90% of the school is still wearing masks,” with perhaps 15-20 students in all of his classes combined not masking up.

Several teachers, who did not want their names used, also indicated that masking in their classes was close to universal.

And a website message from the school stated that “we know today that most students and staff are continuing to wear masks at ETHS, and you should feel comfortable and supported in doing so.”

The school noted that the current transition “may be stressful for some of our students and staff. Please honor and respect everyone’s individual decision and accept their masking choice.”

But while most are masking up, there is still controversy over how ETHS handled the decision.

Teachers Council, the union for more than 300 ETHS educators, says Witherspoon improperly failed to include the union in the decision making process.

While the union originally wanted the mandate reinstated, with the CDC saying most schools can safely unmask (including those in Cook County), Teachers Council president Rick Cardis indicates the focus is now on what’s in the union contract.

In a message to bargaining unit members, Cardis says, “We want the administration to clearly understand that they cannot make unilateral decisions on issues that are protected in our contract,” and the “principle of exerting our rights” under that contract and Illinois labor law is what’s at stake.

Witherspoon had stated he had no choice but to lift the mandate on Feb. 28, due to court and legislative actions.

However, in his message, Cardis says, “Dr. Witherspoon was not being honest,” because ETHS could have kept the mandate in place.

Evanston/Skokie District 65 is not lifting the mask rule until March 7, to give the community more time to prepare.

Cardis says that both school districts share the same law firm, and received the same advice. District 65, he says, decided it was okay to wait a little longer.

District 65 Superintendent Devon Horton also mentioned that unions were included in that school system’s deliberations.

In the meantime, while ETHS is in its first week of masks being “highly recommended” but not required, other mitigation strategies, such as hand sanitizer are still in place. And masks are available for those who want them.

ETHS continues to urge everyone in the building to wear masks, as the best protection against the spread of COVID-19.

“Be sensitive to the various reasons for individual choice,” the high school says.

“Our learning environment should be free from bullying, harassment, or judgment whether a student or staff member chooses to wear a mask or not.”

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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