EVANSTON, IL — Evanston Township High School launched a hybrid learning plan for the first time Wednesday, becoming one of the final three suburban high school districts in the state to offer in-person instruction to its students. ETHS students who have opted for on-campus learning will attend one class per course every two weeks.
Superintendent Eric Witherspoon said he expects administrators to learn a great deal about the district’s safety measures — both in and out of the classroom — as they implement a hybrid schedule for the first time.
“ETHS is taking advantage of this pandemic to realize that there’s a chance for a real fresh start,” Witherspoon said.
With state education officials calling for in-person learning to be the default in the fall, the superintendent this week told board members he wants to find opportunities to create a “new normal” that will give the district a “leap forward” to do exciting new things.
Teachers have been eligible to be vaccinated for nearly two months as members of the Phase 1b priority group. But board members pointed out Evanston’s health department never coordinated a dedicated on-campus vaccine event for staff, even though the the building is centrally located in the community.
“I just kept waiting and anticipating for this to happen,” said Board President Pat Savage-Williams. “And it has really been so disappointing that it hasn’t.”
No information on the number of students who have opted in to the hybrid option starting this week was immediately available from ETHS District 202 district representatives. It will be added here if received.
Pete Bavis, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, explained the once-every-fortnight in-person instruction plan was designed to ensure students in remote learning have the same instruction from teachers and engagement with classmates as those who attend classes in person.
“We are very cognizant that families choose remote instruction for a variety of reasons so one of our guiding principles is that hybrid instruction at ETHS does not penalize or otherwise negatively impact remote-only students,” Bavis said. “Remember, the teachers are teaching simultaneously in this model.”
Bavis said that teachers have the option of offering some hands-on learning experiences to students, but they have to be ungraded and considered “enrichment” instead of instruction.
“What we don’t want is to have students to have two stunningly different experiences, but we do realize that in some courses — if you’re in the culinary lab for example, you’re probably going to want to take advantage of the culinary lab,” Bavis said. “And how do we balance that, with some in-person experience and some remote experience at the same time?”
After the 2020-21 school year ends next month, ETHS administrators plan to offer summer school via all remote or fully in-person learning, eliminating the hybrid schedule.
Unlike in several other suburban districts that have launched hybrid learning programs over the last six months, there will be no comprehensive coronavirus testing for students or staff at Evanston Township High School.
Symptomatic students will be referred to diagnostic testing, administrators told the board Monday, but there will be no requirement that students have tested negative or submit saliva samples as a condition of on-campus instructions.
Instead, the district will rely on the honor system: a series of screening questions that must be answered before people can come back on campus. Bavis urged everyone to complete the self-screener honestly.
“As we play catch-up as a community, and as we actually begin to vaccinate students who are 16 and up with the Pfizer, I don’t want us to lose sight of what we all have in our control and what is critically important to keeping our school open for students. And that is: accurate and honest self assessments on that screener everyday,” Bavis told the board at its April 12 meeting.
“When asked what we learned from other districts, we learned that dishonestly closes schools,” he added. “That’s what we’ve learned.”
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According to a review of data submitted to the Illinois Department of Education and school district websites, ETHS’s move leaves two high school districts outside of Chicago Public Schools remaining on fully remote learning — Thornton Fractional High School District 215, which is launching hybrid later this month, and Thornton Township High School District 205, which has announced plans to remain in remote for the rest of the 2020-21 school year.
By comparison, District 215 is funded to 64 percent of adequacy and District 205 is funded to 70 percent of adequacy, while ETHS District 202 is funded at 114 percent of adequacy, according to data from state education officials.
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The district to ETHS’ immediate north, New Trier Township High School, launched a 25 percent hybrid program in October 2020. Niles Township High School, immediately west of ETHS, launched its 50 percent hybrid learning plan at the start of last month. Teachers in CPS high schools stayed home Wednesday in protest of the district’s hybrid plan, which is set to begin Monday.