Principal Wachtel Q&A: Next school year


Photo by Elissa Eaton

As local and national health officials change COVID-19 protocols, they have created uncertainty regarding what next school year might look like. To answer some common student questions, the North Star interviewed Interim Principal Jay Wachtel. 

Are you anticipating returning to an eight period day next year?

To answer that question in a very general way, I think that all policies and procedures and things we do would go back to pre-pandemic, just by default. That would be the eight period day, starting at 7:45 rather than 7:35, getting out at 3:10, having late arrival on Wednesdays instead of Mondays — I think all those things would just be normal. Almost everything would go back to the exact same as we had it before. 

What kind of changes from this year might stay in place next year?

We have asked about off-campus lunch for juniors. We have some concerns because if we do a regular eight period schedule, it would be different. Junior cars would still be over on Benedetti, Fifth Avenue or Pacific or wherever you can get a spot, so the distance of getting to that, going somewhere and coming back is longer. It’s a little different with this schedule but currently we are in the process of talking to the district about if we’re able to offer off-campus lunch for juniors and even younger. We have not had any problems with the discipline, or kids skipping class because of it, or kids getting in trouble during it. So there’s no reason to not allow it, we just have to make sure we can get permission and the logistics. It is tough, because when you go off as a senior you are parking literally right outside the door and even then using most of the 50 minutes, so we have a little concern about how that would look. Parents might come pick up kids too, so that could be a traffic problem. So we’re in discussion about it, but we aren’t finding a big roadblock yet. 

Do you know anything about the mask requirements for next school year?

I only know what the current CDC guidelines are. I am optimistic that we can not wear masks because of the vaccinations being available for 12 and above. In the past, the Illinois Department of Public Health and State Board of Education have adopted CDC guidelines. They haven’t always adopted them the next day they are announced, but sooner or later they have adopted them. That is a very popular question, and no one really knows the answer. But if we have a certain rate of vaccinations, we hopefully will be able to not have masks

How do you foresee blended classes changing? Have you noticed a change in blended class enrollment?

I have noticed a change in the amount of enrollment, but it is not an increase. It’s a significant decrease in the number of students who signed up for blended classes. So we offered blended classes, the same amount or even more for the 2021-22 school year, as we did for this school year, and there is a significant decrease in students signing up for them. My guess [as to why that is] is that people are kind of done with doing school …online. [Students] might be thinking that maybe there is something to be said about going to class, and regular school wasn’t that bad. It’s a different experience when you are doing everything through Canvas, a lot of reading, a lot of self motivation, a lot of that type of stuff, so that’s what we’re guessing is the reason. I would suspect that a year from now, it would probably go back up again. People will kind of remember what blended classes are like and what a nice balance of in-person and online was like, and I would bet it would bounce back up a little bit again.

Field trips, assemblies, school dances — will they happen? 

Yep. All the things that we traditionally do we will plan on doing. And maybe there are some opportunities for some new things too. I think as administrators, we will try to have an increased level of communication with particularly juniors and seniors — because they are typically the leaders of the school — to get feedback on how they want this to go, what will work well, what things they did or saw or participated in as freshmen and sophomores that they want to be sure to have in place again as seniors…I think there will be an open dialogue between the upperclassmen and the administration. 

As is always true, freshmen have never been in our building when they start the year. But what is interesting is that our current freshmen, who will be sophomores next year, we’ve only had a portion of them here, for a portion of the year. So none of the freshmen or sophomores will have experienced North in any sort of normal way. That’s 50% of our school. Next year’s juniors will have only experienced North as freshmen, from August through March 13. Our current juniors, who will be seniors next year, will be the only grade level in this school that had a full, normal freshman year. That’s a big deal. I do think there are some opportunities there. We already have a lot of really cool traditions and things that are unique to North, but that could also bring about some opportunities for students to have input into what those new traditions are. If there were students saying that a certain type of event that they heard about or saw on social media would be fun to do at North, even if we’ve never done it before, we would be open to it. Ultimately, this place needs to represent students.

Why did Mrs. Posey leave? When is she coming back? Why is she coming back?

Mrs. Posey’s job at the district office is assistant principal for secondary schools, so she oversees junior high and high school. The person that had the job before her was no longer in that job so the position was open, and they really thought they wanted Mrs. Posey to do the job, so they asked her to do it. But she wanted to stay at North and stay with kids and she liked her current job as principal. So all of us knew that; we all had the word interim in front of our names, waiting to see what would happen. So as far as I understand, she always viewed herself as a principal and wanted to remain a principal. She misses the kids. 

How will the transition between principals look? 

We are kind of already doing it in a lot of ways. Mrs. Posey spends one day a week here… Different people at North have different meetings with her throughout the day when she is here. And we include her on anything we are doing as far as decision making for next fall and beyond. She is like my immediate boss, and so we communicate basically daily anyway, so she is very aware of what’s going on here, and the planning and decisions for next year. July 1 is officially the day where we do the transition, but like I said, we have already been doing a lot of it. 

How is the school working to address the learning gap created by this year?

There’s a couple of real things that the district has put money behind and then there’s a theoretical piece to that. The real things include the opportunity to have an additional social worker and an additional math specialist that will be in our building, primarily working with kids that might have deficits or may have issues arising because of the pandemic. This wouldn’t be one hundred percent academic, it could be social-emotional as well and that’s what the social worker will focus on. Math is an area where students struggle, particularly because math is a kind of activity that [is helpful] to do daily. Kids, in a lot of regards, were able to read and do reading, writing, that kind of stuff, but in a pandemic, math is a challenge. There’s just something about daily learning it, practicing it and having a really consistent routine, so we are focusing some of the help in those areas. When students are identified to have any kind of a deficit or issue in that regard, they’ll be sent towards those extra supports. 

When you start class, to use math as an example, the first month of a math class is a review of the previous year, the previous concepts, the biggest things you learned. A teacher, really what they are doing, is assessing where students are at, which is an annual process that occurs here. We are always assessing what teacher you had last year, what you learned, where you’re at, where the gaps are, and we focus on getting everyone to be as equal as possible in the beginning weeks. We’ll make an extra effort to do that this year, be really conscious about identifying and assessing where students are at the start of the year in all classes. In every classroom, the vocab word for that is Tier 1 and so that’s a Tier 1 support. The math specialist and the extra social worker, those are things that happen outside of a class, targeted for specific kids and not everyone gets it, that’s Tier 2. So there will be some Tier 1 things that every student gets, like a really good review and assessment of where they are at. Kids that need it will get some Tier 2 help. 

The other thing I keep saying to many people is that obviously there are some kids that have struggled during this year…but there are other students who haven’t. They have really done fine, they enjoy online learning, they have a home environment or a place to work and learn that’s been fine for them. They’ve seen maybe some social contacts through sports or activities, or they’re comfortable with their current level of social contacts and interaction. So I don’t think it’s fair or true to say that all kids have a learning deficit, or a social-emotional deficit. You really have to be conscious about identifying which kids have which deficits on an individual basis and really treat students individually. There are hundreds of different cases of how people are doing based on this pandemic.


Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.