When Illinois Governor JB Pritzker in March 2020 closed all public schools in the State, administrators and teaching staff in Evanston focused initially on academics, implementing remote learning within days of the mandated shutdown. A spring of remote learning and the following summer gave administrators time to understand that reopening school buildings necessitated balancing physical safety, academic progress and social/emotional wellbeing.
Plans to reopen school buildings changed with the waves of COVID-19, and administrators enlisted teachers, staff, community members, and medical experts in the balancing process. Isolation from peers and extended family, economic hardship from the lockdown, and the relative distance necessitated by remote learning took a toll on everyone.
With no vaccine on the horizon in the fall, the school districts implemented programs to address students’ academic and social/emotional needs – ad-hoc measures until the buildings could be safely reopened.
As the pandemic continued, administrators reassessed the metrics they would use to reopen the school buildings, saying they were protecting students and staff from COVID-19 and doing their best to meet students’ academic and social/emotional needs.
In Evanston, the K-8 School District, Evanston/Skokie School District 65, repeatedly postponed its re-opening date but clearly stated its reasoning for each delay. Evanston Township High School District 202 announced only a few re-opening dates.
Although both districts made these announcements, the debates and decision-making were not held in public. ETHS reopened on April 12.
Illinois public schools will all open for in-person learning next month. There will be some exceptions made for students who qualify for remote learning.
Data is still being collected on local, district, national, and worldwide levels. However, interviews with administrators, pediatricians and high-school students offer a snapshot of the effects of the schools’ efforts to safeguard students and staff from a sometimes deadly virus and from the debilitating effects of isolation. District officials and local pediatricians are in agreement that reopening the schools had an overall positive effect on children’s mental health.
At Evanston Township High School, A Year Imbued With COVID Trauma
ETHS is the size of a small town in physical size and population. The 2020-21 academic year embraced 3,729 students, 316 faculty members, and 312 administrative and support staff members.
The school’s population, including students and faculty/support staff, is racially, ethnically, and economically diverse. The student population is 45.6% white, 25.1% Black/African American, 19.5% Hispanic/Latino, 5.6% Asian, 3.8% multi-racial (2 or more), and less than 1% each for Native Hawaiian and Native American. Enrolled students come from 69 countries, with 38 different languages spoken at home. Thirty-five percent of all students qualify as low-income, including 115 who do not have a steady address or location to call home.
ETHS closed for in-person learning in March 2020, and did not open for in person learning in the fall. At nearly every School Board meeting held during the lockdown, Superintendent Eric Witherspoon said the physical safety of staff and students was foremost in deciding when to reopen for in-person learning. He always said, “We will follow the science.” Neither the Board nor the administration discussed publicly what metrics were used and whether those changed over the course of the pandemic.
ETHS reopened on April 12, welcoming the first cohort of students on April 13 to learn under a hybrid model. The option of hybrid learning was open to all families; the decision to attend the hybrid classes was made individually by students or their families.
Physical Safety and Social/Emotional Well-Being, With Science Added In
ETHS administrators said they maintained contact with students throughout the lockdown. Supporting Dr. Witherspoon’s emphasis on the need for physical safety from a sometimes deadly virus, Assistant Superintendent/Principal Marcus Campbell, and Associate Principal for Student Services Taya Kinzie discussed the impact of COVID-19 on the social/emotional well-being of ETHS students. They said they understood students were affected not only by the isolation of the lockdown but also by the nationwide racial trauma over the killing of George Floyd and the deaths – some of them violent – of some of their peers and former teachers.
Dr. Witherspoon, Dr. Campbell and Ms. Kinzie called the conflation “COVID-And.” They said further that families of color bore the brunt of racialized trauma.
The three administrators said they felt ETHS was well prepared to respond quickly and roll out online learning because its online educational plans had already been approved by the State.
ETHS made mental health services available to students, staff, and families, and worked to de-stigmatize mental health care. The school also implemented an outreach program to provide emergency assistance to families in need, efforts that went beyond technical support and school supplies, and one that included food, clothing, transportation, advocacy to prevent eviction, and more.
During the pandemic, Dr. Witherspoon said, he met daily with his 11-member cabinet to review updates and new information.
Death and Trauma Beyond COVID-19
The specter of death was everywhere during the past 15 months as one catastrophe after another seeped through the school’s locked doors.
Dr. Campbell said, “I don’t know that we can really compartmentalize our question in the conversation to just be talking about COVID-19 without talking about the other losses that we experienced: the staff losses; the student losses; the racial component of George Floyd and Jacob Blake [an ETHS alum and member of a venerable Evanston family shot by police in Kenosha, Wis.]. All of it was together for us. It was together for our staff, for our staff of color, for our kids of color, for our families of color, and for many white families. It was all together. It was COVID-And … We made a lot of decisions about so many things related to COVID, but there were so many things that we were experiencing and it was all together, and they were layered on top of one another.”
The deaths of several students and recent graduates reverberated throughout the ETHS community. Several died as a result of gun violence, adding a layer of criminality on top of the tragic demise of a young person.
Current and former employees also died. Nearly all of these deaths of students, staff, and family members, were people of color.
Trauma outside the ETHS community affected the students, teachers, and families: the public murder of George Floyd and the shooting two months later in Kenosha, Wis., of Evanston native Jacob Blake. He was shot seven times in front of three of his children and left partly paralyzed.
Crisis Response and Racial Trauma
Recognizing the impact of COVID on stress levels, the administration made mental health resources and mindfulness training available to families as well as students and teachers.
Administrators maintained that educational rigor did not suffer. Information gathered from student interviews and anecdotally, however, suggests that students had concerns about not learning as much during hybrid or remote learning as they would have during a typical year – noting that their teachers were doing a good job, given the circumstances.
Calls to Open the School for In-Person Learning
As early as December 2020, a group of medical doctors and concerned parents, some in both roles, began to urge administrators to reopen the school for in-person learning.
They said reopening the building as quickly and safely as possible was essential for reasons of mental health and racial equity.
Valerie Kimball, a pediatrician at Chicago Area Pediatrics, and the mother of three current and prospective ETHS students, sent a letter to be read at the Dec. 14 District 202 School Board meeting.
Dr. Kimball said that over the past nine months, she had become “extremely concerned” about the mental health of ETHS teenagers.
“Our well-teen visits, which in the past were often exciting discussions about school, friends, and activities, are now primarily discussions about managing school from home, difficulties in staying motivated and engaged, the need for continued social interactions, and feelings of isolation, sadness, and anxiousness.
“Many teens indicate they have gone from ‘A’ students to just barely getting by. Some wonder if they have developed ADD [Attention Deficit Disorder], as they no longer are able to focus and engage on a screen, others indicate they have simply become apathetic.
“The mental health crisis is exacerbated,” she wrote, “by the fact that mental health resources are overtaxed and the social workers, teachers, and coaches who helped students through tough spots are no longer as accessible.”
While she recognized the physical concerns about the virus, she wrote, “We are on the brink of losing many of our children to the downward spiral of mental illness – anxiety, depression, drug use and overdose, and suicide as a result of delayed in-person schooling – not to mention those we have lost because they have given up on education.”
Within a few weeks, a group called Reopen Schools, composed of several parents, medical professionals, and other concerned residents, was putting public pressure on ETHS administrators to convene a medical advisory team to expedite bringing students back into the building.
ETHS Delays Re-Opening
ETHS administrators hewed to the physical threat of COVID-19 as a reason to keep the school closed to in-person learning and gave examples of racial disparities in the effect and impact of the virus.
Dr. Witherspoon said, “This is documented nationally even to this moment, and it is documented anecdotally here. People of color saw this threat of COVID and death very different than some white people. … So there was a perspective that was racialized. People saw the situation through their own perspective, through their own racial lens.”
Referring to some of the vocal groups that were promoting alternative points of view, Dr. Witherspoon said, “They had zero impact on what we were doing at ETHS and the decisions we were making.”
Administrators decided to wait until the staff had an opportunity to be vaccinated. ETHS opened the school for in-person learning on April 12, using a hybrid model.
ETHS Opens for In-Person Learning
Although ETHS re-opened on April 12, it was not until the next day that students lined up to have their temperature checked and be admitted back into their beloved high school.
Under this hybrid model, a teacher would teach all students – those at home and those in the classroom – at the same time.
In-person students attended classes on campus every other week. These students had been split into four cohorts: A, B, C, and D. In-person classes took place Tuesday through Friday; a break between 11:15 a.m. and 12:15 p.m. allowed time for travel or lunch or both.
For each course, in-person students attended one session every two weeks – about 12 in-person sessions until the end of the term. With this model, the school maintained about a 25% capacity.
Pete Bavis, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction at ETHS, told the RoundTable that this model of hybrid learning put extra work on teachers.
Evaluating the Impact of the Re-Opening
ETHS administrators did not expressly rely on the reopening as a way to address student’s mental health and social/emotional well-being. They said those issues were addressed in the remote supports offered during the year.
“If there was one take-away,” Dr. Bavis said, “it was that the challenges were complex, they were layered, and they were vastly different kid to kid, family to family,” said Dr. Bavis.
During the lockdown, ETHS implemented two changes intended to address the conjunction of academic stress and social/emotional well-being: eliminating final exams and establishing a predictable structure.
“We stopped administering semester exams during the pandemic. We felt that would de-stress the environment for kids.
“The other thing we did was have a very stable schedule for kids, whether it was e-learning or in-person. … We had our Wildkit Mondays, where the kids did asynchronous work and had time to decompress. Tuesday through Friday, we used a block schedule. … We also built in a break in the middle of the day for students, which is very important.”
Dr. Bavis said, “Social- emotional learning has to be centered in everything we do. Because everybody is so different, even acclimating to social settings in the classroom, we have to be super mindful of how we re-integrate kids and adults back into this, because we honestly don’t know what they’re carrying. We don’t have insight into everybody.
“We have to be responsive to the needs of our kids when they come into the building next year.”
And the Students Say …
Interviews of a small but diverse group of high school students reveal two take-aways: Each student’s experience was different, but all said it was important to connect with their teachers, whether via Zoom or in-person.
Avamarie Via chose to complete her year the way it began: with remote learning.
“I stayed remote when we had the opportunity to go to hybrid. I didn’t want to go partially. I just wanted to go all-in. Hybrid learning did not appeal to me because of that,” Avamarie said.
Remote learning “wasn’t ideal, but it was a hard time for everybody, and we got through it.”
Avamarie said she experienced “more stress than depression, because I felt I wasn’t learning as much as I normally would. It was like, ‘Oh, I should be in my classroom, but I’m not.’ I felt like I would be learning more during a regular year in my classroom.
“Going back to in-person learning in the fall will be kind of like a light at the end of the tunnel for me.”
Tamara Guy, who graduated in May, said, “Originally, I planned on being in hybrid learning because I thought it would somewhat reflect regular schooling, but as the date to go hybrid approached and teachers began explaining it, I decided that it was not for me and opted out because I think it lacked the real school feeling.”
Bijou Carmichael, a rising junior, said, “I stayed remote all year. … It worked for me, personally, but it wasn’t for everyone, obviously.”
Olu Logan became a fourth generation ETHS graduate in 2021. His father, Gilo Kwesi Logan, said Olu chose to stay remote when the opportunity arose to select hybrid learning.
“There are pros and cons to in-person and online learning. By the time ETHS opened up, Olu didn’t even want to return,” said Dr. Logan.
Sofia Williams opted for hybrid learning when the opportunity for hybrid became available starting in April, 2021.
“I felt sure that that was what I wanted to do when I went to hybrid learning. I just wanted to be able to meet my teachers and possibly see some other students in my class, and have some glimpse of that normal social school scene, I guess.
“The most significant change was just in the mindset. It sort of felt like I was going back to normal, and that going back full time was a possibility for the future – which was really nice.”
“I chose to do hybrid learning because I wanted to have my last chance in the building as a senior,” said Mikaéla Parisien.
Rising senior Peter Kezdy said, “I went to hybrid learning. I like to see my teachers, and I want to build relationships with them. Especially junior year when they can give you letters of recommendation, it’s good to build relationships with them. I definitely had to get up earlier just to get to school, but it wasn’t too much, because you only had to go every other week.” He said he was glad he went to the hybrid model and felt the teachers “did a good job.”
Louise Bond said she felt safe in her decision to opt for hybrid learning
“I also really enjoyed all of my classes this year and loved all my teachers, so I wanted the experience of attending classes in-person, even if it was just a few times.
“This year was also my senior year and I wanted closure in the building for example going to Central Library, the Evanstonian [school newspaper] room, and even just walking the halls for the last time before graduating.”
In assessing the brief re-opening of ETHS, one can look at physical safety, academic progress and social/emotional outcomes.
- After the re-opening, there was not a major outbreak of COVID-19 or quarantining at the school.
- ETHS will continue its policy of no longer having semester exams Dr. Bavis told the RoundTable via email. He added, “However, given the additional minutes built into each period, students can expect to take more robust unit tests, etc. … If students do not have the stress of semester exams in their classes, they may be able to better focus on the courses taught by ETHS teachers already skilled at preparing students for college and careers.”
- The social/emotional impact of the year of COVID-19 has yet to be measured.
This piece is part of a collaboration that includes the Institute for Nonprofit News, The Beacon/KCUR; Bridge Michigan/Side Effects Public Media; Cicero Independiente/South Side Weekly; Detour Detroit/Planet Detroit/Tostada Magazine; Evanston RoundTable/Growing Community Media; Madison 365/Wausau Pilot & Review; and MinnPost/Sahan Journal.
The project was made possible by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation with additional support from INN’s Amplify News Project and the Solutions Journalism Network.