Evanston Township High School will add in-person activities at the building next month, although classes for the school’s 3,600 students will still be taught remotely.

In a letter to the community, District 202 Superintendent Eric Witherspoon and ETHS Principal Marcus Campbell say that due to improving coronavirus metrics, there will be expanded in-person experiences at the high school starting in February.

“Our goal,” they say, is to make sure than any ETHS student who wants to come to school for in-person activities may be able to do so in a safe manner.

Today’s announcement comes one day after a parents group, the Coalition to Reopen Evanston Schools, issued a ten-question news release as part of the group’s attempt to get ETHS to resume in-person classes. However, a District 202 spokesperson says the new activity planning was already under way.

District 202 has been on remote learning since school began in the fall, and will continue that way at least for now. Witherspoon and Campbell say, “While offering in-person opportunities, we will maintain the continuity of instruction by continuing to follow the Enhanced E-learning schedule.”

Any decision for in-person school, they add, will be based on COVID-19 guidance from the Illinois State Board of Education, the Illinois Department of Public Health and the federal Centers for Disease Control. District 202 has not agreed to the coalition demand for a local medical advisory board.

Specific details on the ETHS on-campus activities will be released soon on the school website and during the Feb. 5 ETown Live YouTube broadcast. Among the offerings, the school says, will be certain sports, fine arts, “hands on enrichment and instructional activities” and a variety of other options.

ETHS will also open a “Safe Center for Online Learning” for students who want to take their remote classwork on campus. The goal is to “provide students whose home circumstances require a safe, supervised space in the building daily to participate in Enhanced E-learning.”

There are several questions about the “Safe Center” which presumably will be in the information ETHS plans to disclose, such as how many students will be allowed to attend, how do they sign up and can they drop in one day and not go another?

ETHS officials say most in-person activities will take place on Mondays, when online courses are not “live,” as well as during high school office hours and after school, when remote classes are finished. Social distancing and other health policies will be in effect, and the activities will be offered “as long as local and regional health conditions permit.”

The Coalition to Reopen Evanston Schools was not pleased with much of what District 202 had to say. In a release this afternoon, the coalition said while ETHS mentioned in-person experiences and opportunities, “one phrase is conspicuously absent: ‘In-person learning.’” The coalition wants the district to outline a return to in-person school plan no later than Feb. 16, the day Evanston/Skokie District 65 is aiming to open its buildings.

Witherspoon and Campbell say the pandemic has taken an emotional toll on young people, and “We know that for many of our students, in-person experiences at ETHS will lift feelings of isolation, as they will have the ability to reconnect with ETHS and their peers.”

However, since school began in the fall, District 202 leaders have also stressed that beginning in-person classes, only to have to switch back to remote learning if COVID worsens, could actually backfire for both academics and social-emotional health.

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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