A parents group pushing for the in-person reopening of Evanston/Skokie School District 65 is asking the district to set up a medical advisory board involving experts from the community.

The “Coalition to Reopen District 65 Schools” says such a panel can help guide the school system as it decides whether to reopen for in-person classes. The group also wants to host town hall meetings to answer questions about the COVID-19 pandemic.

District 65 has been on remote learning since school began in August. There is a Jan. 19 target for reopening the buildings, assuming the COVID outbreak allows. According to Superintendent Devon Horton, the district is guided by state and district-level metrics, and by mitigation measures from the Illinois Department of Public Health.

In a memo to the community, Horton said recently these metrics “were not independently or arbitrarily established by the district. Metrics were put in place to provide transparency and clarity around decision-making.”

The Coalition has questioned how District 65 is utilizing state guidelines. Katie Magrino Vorhees, a coalition leader and also a candidate for the District 65 Board of Education, has told Evanston Now that the district is misinterpreting the data, which “highlights the need for local medical experts to be consulted by the Board so that they can make informed decisions.”

Dr. Bridget Wild is a local pediatrician and also a coalition leader. Wild has written to the Board, saying that the challenges children face from remote learning, such as isolation and emotional problems, are more consequential than the threat of COVID transmission in school. “There is a steep rise,” she said, “in severe mental health crises among children.”

Racial and ethnic factors are also part of the debate on in-person versus e-learning during the pandemic. Wild said there have been “widening educational outcome disparities for Black and brown students” due to remote learning. But there is also a medical aspect.

The Coalition provided Evanston Now with an emailed response received from District 65 Board Member Suni Kartha, which addressed this issue, among others.

“We know that the impacts of this pandemic are more severely felt in Black and Latinx populations,” Kartha said. Reopening school during the coronavirus outbreak could potentially make that health impact worse, because “we have high demographics of Black and Latinx students and … many of these students live in multigenerational homes,” Kartha said.

Kartha also mentioned the potential health impact on staff from reopening school, “not just our teachers but especially staff who do not have an option to work remotely (for example, custodians, a staff group that has a higher percentage of Black and Latinx members).”

In an effort to broaden its racial connection, the coalition reached out to the Organization for Positive Action and Leadership (OPAL), a social equity organization, to see if that group would work with them. However, Alyce Berry, OPAL Secretary, told Evanston Now that OPAL is opting not to do so.

“We were contacted by a person asking us to join in advocating for in-person learning based on a concern about children’s mental health,” Berry said. “We felt that children’s mental health is beyond our concern.”

As for District 65 itself, coalition leaders said a recent meeting with administrators was a start at “trust building,” as Vorhees put it, however, there has been no commitment to creating the advisory panel nor endorsing the town halls.

Evanston Now has also asked the District for comment on the coalition’s proposals, but have not yet received an answer.

Meantime, it appears that reopening school on Jan. 19 for parents choosing that option seems in doubt, unless COVID numbers decrease significantly. In his community memo, Horton said “our goal remains to get students back to in-person learning as soon as it is safe to do so,” But he added, “Based on what we are seeing, this will require lower positivity rates and less strain on our healthcare system.”

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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