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‘What I see is a selfish and greedy effort to forge ahead’: New Trier students, teachers call reopening plans inequitable and unsafe during virtual rally

The kids have had enough — at least the ones who make up New Trier Students for Safety.

Noticing a lack of student and teacher voices in the passionate discussions on the the high school’s reopening plans, the newly formed group — which consists of 30-plus members and is not sponsored by the high school — hosted a webinar Tuesday evening, Nov. 24, to present a case against more in-school instruction.

“We felt the School Board was not listening to student perspective and a lot of people were speaking for students,” said Claire Cohen, a group member and New Trier senior. “We wanted to give a platform for teachers and students.”

And they didn’t hold back.

The student-led event was broadcast live on YouTube and welcomed at any given time between 125 and 150 viewers, who heard from students, a physician, a mental health professional and New Trier teachers.

The video has now been viewed more than 900 times, as of press time.

Students for Safety specifically called out the parent group Open New Trier, which held a rally on Nov. 14 to push for 50 percent on-site school attendance every day — the maximum allowed by the State of Illinois amid the pandemic.

The district is discussing bringing more students to campus; however, Superintendent Paul Sally recommended at a special meeting Tuesday evening, Nov. 24, that the district maintain its 25 percent hybrid model until at least after winter break.

Open New Trier has also criticized the 25 percent of New Trier teachers who have been approved to work remotely.

“I think there are a lot of assumptions and even some flat-out lies that the board of education is sort of believing,” NT senior Eva Roytburg said during the webinar, “because of the super small, super vocal group of New Trier parents known as Open New Trier.”

During the event, students like Roytburg and host Jasper Bickers explored both the physical and mental health ramifications of education amid COVID-19. They interviewed Dr. Sharon Moise, the chief medical officer of Medcor, which provides consults and on-site care to organizations; and Nina Esshaki, a clinical counselor and outreach specialist with Haven Youth and Family Services.

Maybe the most powerful moments of the virtual session starred New Trier teachers, multiple of whom criticized the administration for its handling of the reopening plan.

New Trier English teacher Jeffrey Markham reads a statement during the webinar about the district’s reopening plan.

One of the speakers was longtime New Trier English teacher Jeffrey Markham, who pointed out inconsistencies in the district’s messaging to staff.

“We have been told the building is safe for in-person instruction. We have also been told the goal of safety precautions is to keep COVID numbers low,” he said. “It seems obvious that these two statements are incompatible. The building isn’t safe if some COVID cases are expected.

“Anything can happen to anyone in this building if we return now. It is foolish to think that we are safe.”

Markham also said the relationship between faculty and administration has been “deeply damaged” and that damage will have lasting effects.

New Trier Director of Communications Niki Dizon said administration has been transparent with faculty members and “worked incredibly hard” to balance and act upon a continuous stream of information to provide the “safest-possible” environment to serve New Trier students.

“While we have heard concerns from faculty and tried to address those concerns, we have not been offered alternative plans to meet that goal,” Dizon said in an email, later adding: “We have listened to each and every concern with care and understanding.”

Teachers and student speakers also called for the district to address growing equity concerns with the learning platform.

According to numbers provided by the New Trier High School Education Association, and confirmed by the district, a higher percentage of students of color are remote learning compared to White students. While 18 percent of the district’s White students are all-remote, 26 percent of LatinX, 30 percent of Black and 51 percent of Asian students are all-remote.

Dizon said the district is aware of and concerned about the disparity, which further shows that students of color make up 22 percent of the school population but 37 percent of the all-remote track.

“We have been working with our equity team and affinity groups to dig deeper into those numbers so we can understand why more of our families of color are opting for the all-remote track,” she said. “This is an important issue and we need to understand the reasons behind these family choices so we can address specific concerns and assure that we are providing the support and information our families and students need.” 

Administrators have discovered, Dizon said, that students of color have received a “larger than expected” share of subpar grades (D, F and incomplete) through the first quarter of this school year, and in turn, the district is reportedly working to create more safe in-person instruction space for students in need.

(The New Trier) motto calls on all of us to commit hearts to compassion and lives to the service of humanity, but instead what I see is a selfish and greedy effort to forge ahead, leaving the less fortunate behind.” Tom Lau, New Trier art instructoR

In statements read during the webinar, New Trier teachers Lindsay Arado, Todd Maxman and Tom Lau all urged the district to take quick action to correct the equity discrepancy.

“(New Trier’s) response highlights the systematic inequality in our school system,” said Lau, an art instructor and facilitator of the school group Young Asians With Power. “Many of the families we serve are rich and White. They believe they deserve a better education for their kids regardless of whose lives are in danger or who gets left behind.

“(The New Trier) motto calls on all of us to commit hearts to compassion and lives to the service of humanity, but instead what I see is a selfish and greedy effort to forge ahead, leaving the less fortunate behind.”

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joe coughlin
Joe Coughlin

Joe Coughlin is a co-founder and the editor in chief of The Record. He leads investigative reporting and reports on anything else needed. Joe has been recognized for his investigative reporting and sports reporting, feature writing and photojournalism. Follow Joe on Twitter @joec2319

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