Marcus Campbell and Eric Witherspoon.

The superintendent of Evanston Township High School says the “lower risk” from COVID-19 makes it possible for ETHS to bring students back into the building next month.

Speaking on the District 202 “Etown Live” program, Eric Witherspoon said the rate of coronavirus in the community was “too concerning” up until now, which is why ETHS has been on entirely remote learning since March 2020 when the pandemic hit.

In-person classes resume April 15. Students can opt for either a hybrid plan (part in-school, part remote), or continuing exclusively on e-learning. Because of social distancing requirements, no more than 25% of the high school’s 3,600 students will attend in-person at any given time.

Responding to some public criticism about transparency and timing, Witherspoon said the District has consistently aimed for a 4th quarter reopening assuming it is safe with mitigation, and said information has been on the school’s website. And as for why ETHS did not begin its hybrid model already, the superintendent said the virus metrics were the key, and “the metrics were not acceptable.”

Witherspoon said it is important that this year’s seniors get at least some chance to have classes in ETHS if they choose, and it would also be meaningful for this year’s first year students to get into the building now that it can be done safely.

He also said starting in-person classes April 15 instead of sooner would allow quarantine time for anyone who travels during spring break later this month, and will also give teachers more time to obtain COVID-19 vaccinations.

While educators are in the current group allowed to get shots, the largest percentages of those vaccinations so far have been allocated based on age (over 65) or jobs in health care. The City of Evanston’s COVID-19 dashboard shows that as of March 2, only 3% of the doses given via city vaccination events have gone to “other” workers such as firefighters, transit workers, day care employees and educators. With more vaccine becoming available, as well as more chances to receive the shots outside Evanston, the hope is more teachers will become vaccinated before returning to the building.

There are some wrinkles. For example, District 202 is working with the CTA on bus routes to school, but due to social distancing on transit, only 15 people per bus are allowed.

The student hybrid schedule requires a bit of study, but the bottom line is that those choosing in-person school will be in the building four half-days for one week, and then at home for remote learning the next week. The process then repeats. For more details on how this works, go to the school’s web site.

There is one more bump. The state is still requiring juniors to take the SAT exam. Those tests will be given at ETHS on April 13 and 14, just before hybrid classes resume. Because of social distancing requirements, the normal process of giving those exams to a lot of students in a few large rooms is not allowed. Witherspoon said they may have to use “60-70 spaces” throughout the building instead.

Mask, distancing, and other health measures will be in place during both the testing and in-person school. “This is not the time to give up on safety,” Witherspoon said.

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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