E-learning inevitable in E-town this fall

Eric Witherspoon.

Most schools are used to dealing with A, B, C, D and F. This fall, Evanston Township High School will also be dealing with E … as in E-learning

Superintendent Eric Witherspoon told a virtual meeting of the District 202 Board of Education Monday night that remote learning is inevitable for this fall. The only questions are how much, for how long.

ETHS and other Illinois schools changed to remote learning on March 13th, following Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order. While some students will likely be allowed to attend in person this fall under the state’s gradual re-opening plan, Witherspoon told the board it is unlikely Evanston will have many children in the ETHS building on Day One in mid-August, if any at all.

“Some component of this year is going to require e-learning,” Witherspoon said.  He praised teachers for pivoting to e-learning in March with almost no notice, but said e-learning will improve this fall.

The superintendent outlined 64 school-opening guidelines issued by the Illinois State Board of Education and the Illinois Department of Public Health, guidelines he described as “simply astronomical,” a polite way of saying close to impossible. “What bothers me about the guidelines,” Witherspoon said, "is are they really going to mean better education?”

Among those guidelines:

  • six feet of social distancing, including marked paths for walking inside classrooms.
  • face coverings.
  • symptom and temperature checks before entering the school building.
  • cleaning and sanitizing all areas daily.
  • staggered schedules, meals, and bathroom breaks.
  • no shared objects, from lab materials to pens.

Those are among the somewhat easy things to accomplish.  The more challenging include:

  • music classes should be outside as much as possible, because such classes are “highly dangerous for transmission” of the novel cornonavirus.
  • students should eat at their desks.  Once they are finished eating, the room should be disinfected before children resume academic activities.
  • one child per row in buses, and leave every other row empty. “Our buses are packed to the max every day,” said Assistant Superintendent Dr. Marcus Campbell, saying social distancing on CTA buses would be a huge problem.

Evanston Township High School has 3,700 to 3,800 students, plus 600 staff members. “There aren’t enough six feets in every direction,” Witherspoon said, to follow all the distancing guidelines if everyone is in the building at the same time.

One option, he explained, is a “soft opening,” perhaps 250 or so students to begin with, students who may need extra in-person help, would come to the building. Under this scenario, it’s unclear when other students would be phased in, and how long remote learning would continue. That all depends on COVID-19, and on public confidence in public health.  

Witherspoon cited national surveys which suggest 25 per cent of teachers may leave the profession, over fear of returning to a “petri dish” of potential infection. And 40 to 60 per cent of families may not send their children back.

So making sure Evanston parents and students feel as safe as possible is a critical component to getting in-person school in operation. At this time, however, the superintendent said he could not “look anybody in the face” and absolutely guarantee their child will be safe.

No decisions were made.  The Board will revisit the issues at its July 13 meeting.  

That’s why, while it’s unknown who’ll get A’s this fall, and who’ll get F’s, it seems everyone will get an E.

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