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Lake Shore students head back to the classroom 4 days per week

By: Kristyne E. Demske | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published February 24, 2021

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ST. CLAIR SHORES — Beginning the week of March 8, after press time, students in Lake Shore Public Schools will have the opportunity to attend in-person classes for four days per week.

“Right now, according to the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), we are at the blue level, the lowest level of risk for Macomb County,” Superintendent Joseph DiPonio told the Lake Shore Public Schools Board of Education at its Feb. 22 meeting.

The Board of Education voted unanimously to merge the two cohorts so that all students currently participating in hybrid learning would instead attend school together Tuesday through Friday with slightly shortened schedules and continue to learn remotely every Monday.

For most of the school year so far, students have been divided into two cohorts. All students learned remotely on Mondays and then half of the students attended in person on Tuesdays and Thursdays and half of the students attended in person on Wednesdays and Fridays, learning virtually on the opposite days.

DiPonio said that schools that haven’t split their student body and have had less stringent social distancing than Lake Shore schools have had similar transmission and infection rates as their district.

“When we look at data, where we are in terms of risk, we’re declining. It’s news we should be rejoicing in,” he said.

Lake Shore Public Schools kept its middle and elementary schools open using the hybrid schedule in November and December when other nearby districts moved students to full-time virtual learning at the same time high schools were ordered to participate in fully remote learning by the state.

“We successfully made it through those days,” DiPonio said.

He said it seemed that mitigation strategies such as mask wearing, handwashing and cleaning of surfaces, “all of those things that schools have been very, very good at,” helps with prevention, even when 6-foot social distancing is not always possible.

Over the past few weeks, building administrators throughout Lake Shore Public Schools have been working with staff to get student seats spaced at a 6-foot distance as much as possible. When the two cohorts of students are combined, DiPonio said most classes would have 20-25 students per classroom because of the number of students who wish to remain in a full-time virtual learning environment. Even with the combined cohorts, building capacity will still be around 50%, he said.

“We talked in January about after midwinter break that we wanted to be ready to go with combining of cohorts because we saw the declining risk level and the declining transmission,” he said. “Two weeks ago, the high school had 31 classes that had serious spacing issues. They’re down to two at this point.”

During the public comment portion of the meeting, district staff expressed concern about receiving vaccinations before combining the groups of students. Lake Shore Public Schools was able to coordinate with Ascension Health to provide a vaccination clinic for its teachers and staff Feb. 27 for the first dose and March 27 for the second dose.

“Any staff member that wants to be vaccinated is able to get vaccinated,” DiPonio said.

When Board of Education Secretary Elizabeth Munger asked why the date of March 9 was chosen when staff wouldn’t have necessarily had the opportunity to be fully vaccinated by then, DiPonio said they were trying to provide the most in-person instruction as possible.

He said the district wanted to give families enough notice of the change and also give them time to adjust their schedules. Families were notified when they last had the opportunity to choose between virtual and hybrid learning that there was a possibility that the cohorts would be combined some time during the second semester.

DiPonio said that, during the last survey of parents, 70% of families supported the combination of the cohorts.

As of mid-February, he said 19% of Lake Shore staff that wanted a COVID-19 vaccine had had two doses, 40% had had their first dose and 23% were scheduled to receive the vaccine. Seventeen percent were not interested in being vaccinated at this time. Therefore, he said, approximately 83% of staff will have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by March 8.

Several teachers from throughout the district had their opinions on the matter voiced by Frederick Shaheen of the Lake Shore Federation of Teachers, who read letters from staff during the audience participation portion of the meeting. Some teachers said they were concerned about the increased exposures, especially at the secondary level where high school teachers would be instructing students who rotate through up to six classes per day and lunch. They also expressed concerns about spacing.

Lake Shore High School history teacher Michael Spriet said he was concerned with the decision to combine the cohorts in March before all staff potentially had the opportunity to receive two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Putting them into a full classroom before they’ve had the opportunity to receive both vaccination schedules is rash and imprudent,” he said. “We made it this far together, and I’d hate to see us drop the ball this close to the end zone.”

However, some staff members said they were on board with the plan, stating that the positives outweigh the negatives and that secondary students need the consistency of more in-person learning as long as it is safe to do so.

Parent Justin Maniaci said full-time, in-person learning can’t come quickly enough, in his opinion.

“I really believe our kids need to attend five days a week. This is moving much too slow. My ninth grader and seventh grader are telling me they’re learning nothing,” he said.

While COVID-19 is a risk, he said there is also a risk to students’ social-emotional, physical and mental well-being that isn’t being supported by learning at home.

“Children are socializing with each other whether they’re in school or not,” Maniaci said. “They need to go back full-time. The current model is not educating my children and preparing them for a bright future.”

DiPonio said they will continue to offer free childcare to the children of staff members, and that anyone who wishes to remain a fully virtual staff member will be accommodated.

“There has to be grace and understanding with all of this,” he said. “We would do everything we can to make accommodations.”

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