A portion of New Trier High School students will soon be heading back to the classroom thanks to a special board meeting Wednesday night.
The New Trier Township High School District 203 Board of Education unanimously voted Wednesday, Nov. 4, to resume hybrid learning after four weeks off.
Stage 4 of the district’s reopening ladder, which includes in-person learning for 25 percent of students, will resume the week of Monday, Nov. 9. District officials paused the school’s hybrid learning plan just four days after it started on Oct. 6 amid a surge in COVID-19 cases in both the township and the state.
As the surge continued, the district kept a close eye on its predetermined metrics, which kept students out of the classroom.
All seven members of the board spoke at the Nov. 4 meeting in support of the administration’s plan to resume hybrid learning next week, as administration expressed confidence in the district’s saliva-based COVID-19 screening program, in addition to the mitigation measures that are in place.
The unanimously approved screening program, which was pushed through in mid-October, will offer students and staff members optional weekly COVID-19 tests that return same-day results. The program will begin by Monday, Nov. 9, according to Superintendent Dr. Paul Sally — earlier than expected.
Sally said so far approximately 90 percent of New Trier students have signed up for the program, which was the goal of the district. Both Sally and several board members described it as an exceptional participation rate.
He added that the district is also still getting families to sign up for the screening.
The current staff participation rate in the program is 70 percent, he said, adding that the district is also seeing an continual increase in staff signing up.
The district will begin distributing saliva collection kits at its Northfield campus on Thursday and Friday, Nov. 5-6, Sally said.
The kits will contain eight collection vials (one for each week through January), an instruction sheet for proper saliva collection, and several resealable bags to return the samples, according to information from the district.
Officials are anticipating beginning the collection process Sunday, Nov. 8, based on the first letter of a student’s last name, according to its website.
Participating in the screening program is required for all students who are involved in on-campus athletics or extracurricular programs.
Currently, 100 percent remote students will not participate in the program, the district says.
Under the district’s surveillance screening, students who will be learning in-person will return their samples two-three days before they are on campus, Sally said. Students set to learn on campus on Tuesday and Wednesday would return samples on Sunday, while a student learning in-person Thursday and Friday would provide on Tuesday.
The district will encourage staff members to test and submit samples as early in the week as possible, Sally said.
The two student groups that have not yet experienced in-person instruction will attend school, starting Tuesday, Nov. 10. Those groups are: 1. Students with a last name starting with F-K on Tuesday-Wednesday, Nov. 10-11, and 2. Students with a last name starting with R-Z on Thursday-Friday, Nov. 12-13, per district information.
Sally signaled a strong level of confidence in the screening program and the in-place mitigation measures, adding he “feels like the district has a good plan in place.”
All seven board members shared comments, some of which were pre-prepared and all showcasing support for the district returning to a portion of in-person learning.
Board president Cathleen Albrecht said the status quo was no longer working.
“We have heard tonight that students are missing important academic and social development by not having in-person instruction,” she said. “We understand the stress and uncertainty we all have about how to move forward with the school year. We know that our faculty and other staff are working tirelessly to adopt their curriculum and support students. The uncertainty has taken a toll on our students, families and staff, and maintaining the status quo is not working.”
Albrecht continued to say that the district believes it can safely move forward with a plan for in-person learning for several reasons.
“To address this, we must implement a staff and responsible plan to move forward to in-person learning as we do not know when this pandemic will end,” she said. “We know much more than we did from our own successful experiences through the summer and the first part of the school year and also from our peer schools, especially from those who have moved forward in executing hybrid in-person plans. We are confident that we can run school effectively with our safety measures and the screening process, which provides an additional level of security.
“The district will start prioritizing the saliva COVID screening test and will continue to assess its ongoing effectiveness with the screening within our schools. It will also continue to use other metrics to monitor risk in the environment. The district will continue to consult with the local health officials and our reopening advisory board as the situation changes both outside and inside the school. We hope that we have patience from our entire community as we move forward with this.”
While the board overwhelmingly supported the administration’s plan, several teachers and staff members expressed their concerns during the public comment portion of the meeting.
Helen Oushana, a current district employee who works in the health services office and is a New Trier alumna, said she had serious concerns about the reopening of the school next week.
She described the decision to reopen as “flat-out reckless” due to the increasing COVID-19 positivity rate in the area and other surrounding counties shutting down schools all together. She added that while students are able to opt out of in-person learning, support staff members are in the building every single day.
Earlier this week, The Record reported on the increase in COVID-19 numbers in the township.
Using a seven-day rolling number, New Trier Township has seen 209 new cases per week per 100,000 residents as of Monday, Nov. 2, up from 168.2 on Oct. 31 and 107.1 on Oct. 25, according to the New Trier High School dashboard.
The positivity rate has followed a similar trajectory, rising to 6.5 percent from 5.5 in a day and from 3.8 percent just one week ago.
Educator Judy Weiss, a 17-year employee of the district, asked the board to “choose science.”
“Please do not open New Trier for in-person learning next week,” she said. “In this very uncertain world, the New Trier COVID dashboard has provided families, faculty and staff with a measure of certainty. These are the metrics that Dr. Sally has set out and they represent a promise to keep us and our students safe. To abandon them now, when we need them most and they are fire-engine red with warning, is to break your promise to us.
“As Illinois and our region break record after horrifying record, and schools around us shutter their doors and pause their in-person learning, this is not the time to experiment with a saliva screening tool that is so new there is no data on its effectiveness.”
Before bringing the resumption of re-opening to a vote, Albrecht asked for patience from everyone as the district moves forward.
“This is not the normal school year that we’ve had in the past,” she said. There most likely will not be a normal school year this year, so we just need patience from everyone that. … It will just be a different model than what we’ve had before.”
Board members also indicated plans for a path to 50 percent hybrid instruction, should screening program results and operational metrics indicate the district can do so safely, Sally said.
Officials are currently assessing the potential for the 50 percent model, Sally said. In that model, students with last names starting with A-K would attend Tuesdays and Wednesdays weekly, while L-Z last names would attend Thursdays and Fridays.
Martin Carlino is a co-founder and the senior editor who assigns and edits The Record stories, while also bylining articles every week. Martin is an experienced and award-winning education reporter who was the editor of The Northbrook Tower.