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Aaron Dorman, Freelance Reporter
10:20 am CDT March 17, 2020

“[This was] certainly nobody’s first choice.” That was how Peter Tragos, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, acknowledged the situation for New Trier District 203 at the Monday, March 16 Board of Education meeting, but all things considered, he declared the district’s response “pretty darn good.”

In just over a week, amidst the impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent emergency closures, the district has had to react fast and institute a remote learning program. Even before Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced all public schools to be closed from March 17-30, New Trier, like many other districts, was making contingency plans. Tragos laid out the truncated timeline for moving more than 4,000 students and hundreds of staff to a virtual platform. On March 6, after several days of departmental planning, the district instituted a “call to action” to prepare in the case of cancelling school. The following school day, staff got a crash course in using the remote learning tools with a technology specialist team. Schools closed for the first time on Friday, March 13, so teachers could create their canvas pages and the Trevian Remote Learning system. 

“This is not how we would decide to teach if we could, but we are doing our best to adapt to the situation and provide our students the best opportunity to learn,” Tragos said. The board highlighted several student projects including an architecture class’ COVID-19 challenge to design a local health clinic, and some student “macro photography” samples. 

The remote learning schedule is designed to mimic a regular school day as much as possible. Students are expected to check the Canvas pages by 8 a.m. and complete assignments by 3 p.m. in the afternoon. Teachers are still expected to take “class attendance” and be available throughout the day for communication. 

Tragos praised the thoughtful and collaborative effort of the entire community for helping provide a sense of normalcy. The e-learning curriculum was guided by the Illinois State Board of Education and the North Cook Intermediate Service Center. Logistical issues include how to help special needs students with e-learning, and how to effectively use online tools like slack or zoom.

“Where are we?” Tragos asked. “A good first day. But not a perfect one.” 

For now, there is no centralized portal where parents can provide comments. Superintendent Dr. Paul Sally acknowledged surveying students and teachers would be an ongoing challenge. Tragos also pointed to the challenge of “testing integrity” and how to create an environment using software that could mimic classroom settings as closely as possible.

“I don’t think it (the online learning portal) will mimic the classroom process,” Tragos said. “Teachers are identifying what is important for students to know and grades and tests are secondary for now.” 

Superintendent Sally also anticipated student outcomes would have to look different going forward.

The rest of the board expressed pride in how the district has handled the situation. Board Vice President Marc Glucksman, who attended the meeting remotely, said that students have gone from having “healthy skepticism” to “engagement” to “waiting to see what will happen tomorrow.”

“We’re not inventing this alone,” Board President Cathleen Albrecht said. Albrecht noted the somewhat fortuitous timing the district had, in that the upcoming spring break allows for a much-needed pause in the educational upheaval. 

How much longer after that will the schools be closed? Tragos hoped for more information soon. “We are just waiting on it like everybody else,” Tragos said. “At this point, I don’t know what the process is going to look like.” 

For the board itself, future meetings will most likely be virtual; the March 16 meeting had already taken COVID-19 related measures, including spacing out public seating and live-streaming the session.

District budget updates

Christopher Johnson, assistant superintendent for finance and operations, offered an update on capital expenditures and the district’s 15-year plan to renovate various Northfield campus facilities, including the Northfield library. The second bids package was approved during the meeting (the first was approved in February), although Johnson acknowledged the timeline could be paused as he warned “we don’t know what summer will look like yet.” More development and design plans will be discussed in April and May.

Parent concerns

At least one parent took time during the open comments portion of the meeting to vent their concerns about how the covid-19 situation unfolded, admonishing the board for what they considered a delayed closing. 

“The district could have closed school after Friday’s session (on March 6),” said parent and local anesthetics Dr. Ted Wynnychenko. “I’m troubled that, as with school shootings, we react impulsively, not rationally.”