School superintendents speak on return to school, mask policies

By: Mike Koury | Woodward Talk | Published August 26, 2021

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FERNDALE/BERKLEY — Students soon will be returning to class in the Ferndale and Berkley school districts, and both will be focusing on in-person instruction.

The new school year will begin for both districts on Monday, Aug. 30. In the lead-up to the first day of classes, Ferndale and Berkley decided to return to a normal in-person schedule for their respective schools after balancing in-person and virtual education throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

That being said, districts still will be offering a virtual option for families and students who wish to stay home. However, neither will be doing so under the practices that were conducted last year, which had teachers educating students in-person and virtually concurrently.

“It’s a different type of programming,” Ferndale Public Schools Superintendent Dania Bazzi said. “We’re using a program called Accelerate that will provide online content delivery with a teacher/mentor assigned from our district.

“Last year was a little bit different, where teachers were teaching synchronously to children at home,” she continued. “This is a little bit of a different delivery model. Again, for some families, this is needed because of (special) circumstances, and we want to make sure to meet the needs of our individual families.”

Berkley School District Superintendent Scott Francis said the change to a full schedule is an attempt to get back to some normalcy. The district has a similar third-party program that it will be using for virtual education, as well as working with Oakland Schools in a partnership for online schooling.

“Our virtual option looks a little different this year compared to last year,” he said. “(The) number of students, families who were interested in that is about 1% of our student population, but we still wanted to offer that and provide a connection from our staff to families who do want that option. It’s just too much of a strain on staff and, quite honestly, we just don’t think it’s a good practice for our students. So we’re not doing the concurrent teaching.”

Outside of a return to a more normal, in-person instruction schedule, school districts also have been working on solidifying safety protocols for when students come back.

A couple months into 2021, the districts allowed students who wanted to return in-person to do so. The districts followed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines by enforcing students and teachers to wear masks, social distance, and follow sanitization and cleaning practices in the classrooms, amid other protocols.

Across the country, school districts have been met with resistance in regard to mask mandates. Bazzi stated there hasn’t been any pushback in Ferndale on students wearing masks, while Francis said there has been feedback from parents who are not in favor of the policy.

“We’ve had some dissenting opinions, but we’ve also received broad support in favor of, ‘Let’s follow the guidance of our public health professionals,’ because it’s about keeping kids in school,” Francis said. “It’s about keeping kids and staff safe. It’s about where we believe kids should be, with our teachers, and let’s do everything we can to keep it that way throughout the whole school year.”

“At this point in time, we are requiring masks indoors (in) all school buildings for all of our students and staff in the district,” Bazzi said. “We believe that’s a proactive approach since our youngest students do not have the ability to be vaccinated yet. We feel that this is a necessary precaution because, ultimately, our goal is to have students in person and we want to minimize any risk to that.”

Bazzi said the district’s goal is to follow the CDC guidelines to the best of its ability.

“With due respect with masks, I understand the discussions around it, but for the most part, our community is comfortable with that,” she said. “Our students did a fantastic job last year of wearing masks and understanding the why behind wearing masks. So we really did not have any issue at the student level.”

Francis said protocols from last year will largely remain the same, though students will not be required to wear a mask outdoors, which was a requirement.

“Early in the summer, we knew we wanted to get together our administrators, union leaders and give opportunities for teachers to share their thoughts and concerns in regards to the beginning of this school year and what should remain and what shouldn’t,” he said. “Out of those meetings, what was clear to me and the administrative team was that we need to follow the recommendations from our public health professionals and their guidance, and it wasn’t as much about all the nitty-gritty details of those recommendations. It was more, ‘Let’s follow what the public health professionals are saying (is) best practice.’”