Birmingham, Bloomfield schools opt to come back fully virtual

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published August 10, 2020

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BLOOMFIELD HILLS/BIRMINGHAM — Administrators at the Bloomfield Hills Schools and Birmingham Public Schools districts spent the summer working with leaders in the governor’s office, the county health division, Oakland Schools and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to figure out the best way to welcome students back to classrooms this fall.

But at the last minute, both districts opted to eliminate the in-person instruction option altogether and start the fall 2020 school term online only.

The BPS and BHS districts announced the decisions last Friday via email and social media posts, both noting a desire to mitigate risk of potentially spreading the COVID-19 virus in a face-to-face environment.

BHS Superintendent Pat Watson said he was reviewing back-to-school protocols for in-person instruction with the district’s Board of Education Aug. 6 when the conversation took a turn toward a total remote start to the term.

“Following the approval of our COVID-19 Preparedness and Response Plan, the board had a lengthy discussion about our return to school, grappling with the complexities of this complicated time. Ultimately, out of an abundance of caution, the board voted to start the school year remotely,” Watson wrote in a prepared statement. “The board’s decision, while unanticipated, provides the opportunity to further develop our in-person return to school plans in a manner that is as safe as possible for all stakeholders.”

The board voted 4-2 not to move forward with the planned in-person option for instruction. Board Trustee Jaqueline El-Sayed abstained — saying she wasn’t given adequate time for thoughtful discussion — and Board President Paul Kolin and Treasurer Howard Baron voted in favor of keeping the in-person choice available.

“This administration has spent a significant amount of hours, trust me, putting this together to put what they think is as safe a face-to-face environment as possible under what is allowed by the governor,” Kolin said during a board study session Aug. 6. “For a significant amount of our families out there, online does not work. And for various reasons, I’m not going to judge what those reasons are. They’re considering going back to school as essential.”

Trustee Jennifer Cook said despite detailed planning, she didn’t think it was a good idea to bring students and faculty back into buildings together just yet.

“I support you, Pat (Watson), 100%. I support this district 100%. I can’t as a human being, I can’t vote to send out (the in-person option) on Sept. 8,” she said.

For Birmingham, families were notified of the likelihood that instruction would be online completely, but BPS Communications Director Anne Cron said there was still several days or maybe weeks of analysis ahead before the district’s Board of Education makes a final decision. A plan for an in-person half-day hybrid model could still be offered to families, she said.

BPS Superintendent Mark Dziatczak addressed families in an email last Friday explaining the seemingly sudden notion to eliminate the planned in-person instruction option for the fall and go fully virtual to start off the year.

“While there is a leveling of new cases in Oakland County over the last two weeks, the average number of confirmed new cases due to spread remains nearly 100 per day,” Dziatczak wrote. “Reports of outbreaks at schools that have reopened while attempting to mitigate risk in Georgia, Mississippi and Indiana have increased concern for many in our community. We continue to receive feedback from parents and staff members encouraging the district to take a stronger position with respect to student, family and staff safety.”

Nicole Sherwood has twins enrolled in Greenfield Elementary, and another child set to start pre-kindergarten this fall at Greenfield in the BPS district. She was disappointed to learn of the potential loss of the in-person option.

“BPS had a good hybrid plan, and plans to (keep) everyone healthy. People had the option for fully virtual so I don’t see why the district took the hybrid option away. I can’t imagine virtual school working well for elementary children,” Sherwood said on the Birmingham Bloomfield Eagle’s Facebook page.

“I am relieved that Birmingham has taken this step to protect our community,” another commenter replied.

For now, families won’t need to rush to decide which learning format they’ll sign up for — all students are automatically enrolled in the BPS Birmingham Virtual Academy or BHS Bloomfield Virtual.

But students shouldn’t expect a learning experience like this past spring, when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer shut down schools and educators had to teach in what Watson calls “crisis mode.”

“It’s going to look and feel a lot more like school than what we were doing before. Back in the spring, if you couldn’t get on for the day, then you couldn’t turn in your work and that’s it. This will be full online school. School starts at a certain time and if you’re not online at that time, you’re late,” he said.

Watson added that BHS has been running summer programming online and has received positive feedback on the new format and further tweaked that for students in the fall.

Birmingham Virtual Academy will use a new learning management system districtwide called Schoolology, which will replace Google Classroom used previously, and according to Dziatczak, is a better and more engaging experience. Elementary learners will be on a different LMS that has yet to be determined. Those platforms will be supplemented by programs like EdPuzzle, GoFormative and Think Central.

Bloomfield Virtual students grades K-8 will use Google Classroom, and high school students will use the Canvas LMS.

Technology and other resources to stay connected will be made available to students and staff, and they should contact the district for more information.

As for the rest of the school year — small group activities and professional development for staff — it could all look just a little different this year. While virtual learning this fall will be significantly more structured for Birmingham-Bloomfield families than it was in the spring, there’s still plenty left that’s unknown.

“Our plans are comprehensive, and we are deeply committed to maintaining as much of what makes Bloomfield special and unique through our online learning programs. Our administrators, teachers and support staff have worked through the many challenges of online learning and together created a plan of which I am immensely proud,” Watson continued in his statement. “I appreciate their efforts and know our students and families will see their hard work reflected in the robust and engaging teaching and learning that students will receive starting on Sept. 8.”

To learn more, visit Birmingham Public Schools at birmingham.k12.mi.us and Bloomfield Hills Schools at bloomfield.org.

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