COVID-19 FAQ with Superintendent Eric Witherspoon

Prior to students reentering the building for the school year, ETHS staff created new protocols in an effort to ensure student safety and mitigate COVID-19 cases. 

The new COVID-19 protocols focus on rules regarding masks, vaccinations, contact tracing and the overall safety of students and staff. In an effort to provide transparency between ETHS administration[ and students and staff, the school brought back the COVID-19 dashboard, as well as provided detailed information about returning to school on the ETHS website. Despite the school’s efforts to provide transparency and clear information, many students still have questions about the new COVID-19 protocols. 

As of the start of the school year, all students and staff are required to wear face masks when in the building, regardless of vaccination status. Some students have raised questions about eating during class, and there has been unclear information regarding eating in classrooms. 

“We’re not policing every classroom, but we recommend not [eating] in the classrooms because they would be taking their mask off,” Superintendent Eric Witherspoon said. “We’ve been recommended that eating in a particular class is something you’d probably want to avoid.”

In addition to questions surrounding eating in classrooms, many students wondered what lunch will look like as the weather starts to get colder and less predictable. Currently, students have the option to eat lunch in their assigned cafeteria or in one of the courtyards. Although there are tents set up for students to eat under outside, they are not a long term solution as the seasons begin to change. 

Some students voiced concerns about eating in the cafeterias because of the high volume of students and wondered what other options they have for lunch locations. “We’ll still keep the open campus lunch periods for the upperclassmen… We are however, already geared up and what we’ll do is move from the outdoor spaces to other warm spaces in the school, such as the auditorium stage,” Witherspoon explained. “We’re working on opening up the Fieldhouse, so what we will do is we will create, just as we’ve done now with the outdoors, we’ll create other large spaces in the school so we can spread everybody out.”

Even with mandatory mask wearing, positive COVID-19 cases are still a possibility. In order to mitigate the spread of the virus and limit the number of students and staff in quarantine, ETHS highly recommends vaccinations for everyone who is able. 

“We’re going to actually sponsor an in school vaccination event, and that will be starting Sept. 15… So students would have the convenience, if they haven’t been vaccinated yet, [to] actually go right here in the 112 North community room and get vaccinated,” Witherspoon noted. 

On Aug. 27, Gov. JB Pritzker mandated that all Illinois teachers get vaccinated or submit to weekly testing in order to help mitigate COVID-19 cases in schools. 

Not all ETHS staff members are vaccinated, and so “our expectation is that you have to have what the CDC and the state consider a valid exemption, and they’re primarily for specific health issues and for religious issues, those are basically the two. And so if you’re not vaccinated, you’re going to have to document that you have one of the CDC or State of Illinois exemptions,” Witherspoon explained about staff vaccination requirements. 

ETHS does not require students to be vaccinated, but the COVID-19 dashboard reports that as of Sept. 10, 2846 students have submitted proof of vaccination. Witherspoon explained, “as soon as we can get more students vaccinated, we will have the ability to have weekly testing for students who are unvaccinated as well…. And definitely, because it’s a privilege amount of right. If you’re in any extracurriculars and are unvaccinated, you’re going to have to be tested every week… We’ll be using the saliva test, but the one that is called a PCR which is the gold standard of these.”  

Despite every COVID-19 protocol and safety measure, ETHS cannot predict a future event of the school having to close due to COVID-19 health concerns. ETHS has no foreseeable plans to return to remote learning, but in the event that the school has to close for a period of time, the school is prepared to make that transition. “Good news about that is we’ve experienced it, we know how it works. We’ve issued all the technology, and our teachers have experienced teaching remotely. So if that would happen, it would be a rapid transition to a remote or virtual environment,” Witherspoon noted with respect to remote learning. 

In a large effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19 cases between students, ETHS has a comprehensive contact tracing plan which is overseen by the ETHS health department. “We [Evanston] have our own health department, they are so responsive, and they actually are the ones that would help ultimately have to declare a quarantine…  If [a student] does test positive, we have letters that go out immediately to the families in their classrooms alerting them, but we also tell them that they will not need to quarantine unless they hear from the Department of Public Health,” Witherspoon said.

Quarantine requirements in regards to contact tracing are determined based on the student or staff member’s vaccination status and whether they are symptomatic. “Many of our staff members, and soon all of them will be vaccinated, and the protocol is if you’re vaccinated, you do not have quarantine unless you’re symptomatic.” Witherspoon said in regards to who is required to quarantine for contact tracing. 

ETHS COVID-19 protocols are determined in conjunction with CDC and state health guidelines. ETHS students and staff members are doing their part to protect the health of everyone by wearing masks, getting vaccinated and following COVID-19 protocols. “I would describe our COVID team as as a rapid response team,” Witherspoon concluded.