Rochester Community Schools prepares to reopen this fall

By: Mary Beth Almond | Rochester Post | Published July 7, 2020

 Many new cleaning procedures will be put in place within Rochester Community Schools, including disinfecting frequently touched surfaces.

Many new cleaning procedures will be put in place within Rochester Community Schools, including disinfecting frequently touched surfaces.

Photo provided by Rochester Community Schools


ROCHESTER/ROCHESTER HILLS/OAKLAND TOWNSHIP — Rochester Community Schools begins the 2020-21 school year Aug. 31, but given the COVID-19 pandemic, no one knows exactly what the first day of school will look like.

Whitmer’s back-to-school plan
On June 30, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer released the MI Safe Schools Return to School Roadmap, providing details to help districts create local plans for in-person learning in the fall.

“Our students, parents and educators have made incredible sacrifices during our battle with COVID-19,” Whitmer said in a statement. “Thanks to our aggressive action against this virus, the teachers who have found creative ways to reach their students, and the heroes on the front lines, I am optimistic that we will return to in-person learning in the fall.”

The governor also signed Executive Order 2020-142, which requires school districts to adopt a COVID-19 Preparedness and Response Plan to lay out how they will protect students and educators across the various phases of the MI Safe Start Plan.

The MI Safe Schools Return to School Roadmap restricts in-person instruction of any kind for any region within Phases 1-3 of the governor’s MI Safe Start Plan, allowing only remote learning.

All schools can resume in-person instruction as COVID-19 cases decrease — beginning in Phase 4 of the MI Safe Start Plan. As COVID-19 public health metrics continue to improve in Phase 5 of the plan, officials said, some regulations would be relaxed. Once community spread is not expected to return, during Phase 6 of the MI Safe Start Plan, all schools could remain open, with some lasting safety requirements.

When in-person instruction is allowed, the roadmap outlines a number of safety protocols — which are either required, strongly recommended or merely recommended — based on the status of COVID-19 in the area at the time. While all pre-K-12 schools are mandated to follow the safety protocols outlined as “required,” districts may choose to go beyond what is required by implementing some or all of the “strongly recommended” or “recommended” practices.

So what exactly will school look like this fall if in-person instruction is allowed?

Mask mandates vary, depending on the phase. For example, in Phase 4, staff, teachers and students in grades six-12 will be required to wear face masks at all times throughout the school day. The roadmap for Phase 4 also requires all students — including those in grades pre-K-5 — to wear face masks in hallways, common areas and on buses; however, students in grades pre-K-5 would not have to wear face masks within their classrooms.  In Phase 5, facial coverings are no longer required, but are strongly recommended.

The plan also recommends, but does not require, social distancing in the classroom during any phase. It suggests that desks be placed 6 feet apart and that students and teachers social distance as much as possible. If all students can’t fit into the classroom space available, schools may consider implementing a staggered schedule that incorporates alternative dates of attendance or use of virtual teaching.

Throughout the plan, the roadmap recommends that most meals be served in the classroom or outdoors, with staggered mealtimes to allow social distancing in the cafeteria if it must be used.

Athletics, which would only be allowed in Phases 4-6, would have to follow MHSAA guidance and rules.
The safety protocols detailed in the MI Safe Schools Roadmap include guidance on the use of personal protective equipment, good hygiene, cleaning/disinfecting, screening for symptoms and more, and also recognize the impact COVID-19 has had on students’ and educators’ mental health, and how schools can address this issue. Under the plan, schools must cooperate with the local public health department regarding implementing protocols for screening students and staff.

Whitmer said the state would provide $256 million in new school funding to help offset the costs of COVID-19 relief.

“I will continue working closely with the Return to Learn Advisory Council and experts in epidemiology and public health to ensure we get this right, but we also need more flexibility and financial support from the federal government. This crisis has had serious implications on our budget, and we need federal support if we’re going to get this right for our kids,” Whitmer said in a statement.

Rochester Community Schools prepares return-to-school plan
RCS Superintendent Robert Shaner, who serves on Whitmer’s COVID-19 Return to Learn Advisory Council, said RCS is exploring two learning options for the fall — in-person instruction with a remote learning component if there is a resurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic; and the RCS Virtual Campus, which offers online courses taught by RCS teachers.

Shaner said the district put together a task force at the end of February to deal with COVID-19 and said the group has benchmarked the same direction the state is going in, using the roadmap to return to school.

“Our vision in the fall, and things are very fluid in this situation, is to have some type of in-person instruction, as close to what people know instruction to be before COVID. We also intend to offer a fully virtual option for folks that are not comfortable sending their kids back to school. We are also in the process of improving our shift to remote learning so if we have to do that in the fall, we can meet the expectations and exceed the expectations in the community. One of the things that we’ve done to support that is we are shifting to a 1-to-1 technology environment,” Shaner said.

Shaner said that technology model assures that any switch to remote learning is equitable and that every student has access.

The RCS Virtual Academy will offer full-time online instruction. Enrollment in the RCS virtual option will be a semester-long, trimester-long, or yearlong commitment to at-home learning, which relies on parent assistance. The curriculum will be written, designed and taught by RCS educators.

Shaner said the district will continue to follow public health data to make safe, informed decisions, with the intent to return students and staff to their school buildings this fall. Classroom configurations, schedules, staffing and transportation options are being evaluated, and updates will be shared throughout the summer.

“If we have to socially distance in classrooms, not only is there an astronomical increase in costs, but it’s also a logistical challenge. We put somewhere near 100 buses on the road every day, with 60 kids on them. If we have to have buses with 15-20 (students) to keep them apart, that’s a completely different logistics calculus than we’re used to. We can’t make a decision on, say for instance, socially distanced classrooms, without considering who it impacts: things like food service, transportation, arrival and dismissal, arrival and dismissal health care protocols,” he said.

If at any time a complete shift to remote learning is required, Shaner said, it would have more rigorous requirements and more robust academic instruction than the stopgap measures put in place during the crisis in March.

“We’ve had a team working on this, and about every two weeks from the start we reviewed what’s working, what’s not working so well and what we can improve upon. We’ve spent a lot of time over the last few months focusing on that, so we know that if we end up shifting to remote learning in September, October or November, the expectations of the community are going to be different than they were in the spring, and we’re ready to exceed those expectations and be able to offer an environment where there’s grading and that we’re meeting the needs of the kids even more than we were,” he explained.

The district, he said, is lucky to have some experience in operating a facility during the pandemic — the RCS Caring Steps Children’s Center, which was opened as a disaster relief child care facility.

“That really helped us put some of those health care protocols in place, really monitor how they’re working and assess how we can scale them up to a very large organization,” he said.

Shaner said more details about the 2020-21 school year will be released in the coming weeks.
At press time, RCS buildings were to be open starting July 6 by appointment only. For more information about RCS, visit

To read the entire MI Safe Schools Return to Schools Roadmap, visit NAL_695392_7.pdf.