“A bleak picture but an accurate picture.” That’s how Evanston Township High School Superintendent Eric Witherspoon described the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on education. But, Witherspoon added, “We can’t mislead you.”

Witherspoon and four other ETHS administrators answered questions from parents and students in an hour-long virtual town hall. Three hundred questions were submitted in advance, and were distilled down to around a dozen topics.    

Sitting a socially distanced six-feet apart, the school leaders dealt with issues such as how grading will be handled during remote learning, what services will be provided to special education students and what criteria will be used to move out of remote learning only and shift into the hybrid model of part e-learning, part in-person.

Witherspoon pleaded with young people to take the coronavirus seriously. Thirty-six students in sports camps at Lake Zurich High School recently tested positive for COVID-19. Witherspoon said the students contracted COVID at two or three social gatherings, and then brought the illness to camp. “We are in a pandemic. This is a 100-year event,” Witherspoon said. “We’re not making this stuff up.”

ETHS will begin school on Aug. 17 with e-learning only. A plan to start hybrid education after Labor Day was dropped, after strong objections from teachers to in-person school due to health concerns.

The new e-learning will be a lot more rigorous than what was quickly put together after Illinois schools closed in mid-March due to the virus. Teachers have spent the summer learning to better utilize technology. And grades will be given out in e-school, A through F, just like the old days. “A return to a grade scale communicates that this is a return to school,” said Assistant Superintendent Pete Bavis.

Special education students who have individual education plans will now be given individual remote individual education plans, to help provide the services those students need.

ETHS will take extra efforts to have students get to know their teachers, even if they don’t get to meet them in person. A social/emotional “tool kit” was part of what teachers received this summer, to help deal with student problems. And there will be “mindfulness coaches” to help out as well.

Perhaps the biggest question is when will ETHS reopen as a school building, even if it is only hybrid … part remote, part in-person?  The answer … nobody knows. The district will monitor all relevant health statistics and developments in making that decision.

But whenever ETHS does have in-person classes, “It’s not going to be the school you wanted it to be,” the superintendent said.

Masks, social distancing, assigned seats … the same place every day, for contact tracing, in case someone gets the virus. The school’s beloved “YAMO” student theatrical has been pushed from fall to spring, but might not happen. Belting out a tune also means spraying droplets into the air, droplets which could spread COVID. “Singing is literally life-threatening,” Witherspoon said.

It’s not a happy scenario. But ETHS leaders are hoping everyone will pull together to help make it through these challenging days, or even months.  Witherspoon ended the town hall with a slight variation on a phrase he uses so often: “it’s a great day to be a Wildkit … even in the worst of times.”

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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