RCS resumes in-person learning for some students

By: Mary Beth Almond | Rochester Post | Published October 6, 2020

 Dan Amore, the interim assistant principal at Rochester High School, uses one of the wall-mounted hand sanitizer stations in the school hallway.

Dan Amore, the interim assistant principal at Rochester High School, uses one of the wall-mounted hand sanitizer stations in the school hallway.

Photo provided by Rochester Community Schools


ROCHESTER HILLS — The majority of students in the Rochester Community Schools district headed back to their classrooms this week for the first time in over six months.

Superintendent Robert Shaner recently sent an email to families to announce the district’s updated plan to phase in a return to schools, welcoming remote learning students first in a temporary hybrid model, with the hopes of eventually moving to full time.

“If the variables remain somewhat constant, we anticipate returning to full-time, in-person instruction around mid-November,” Shaner said in a statement.

The district’s hybrid learning model was created by the RCS pandemic task force after the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services recommended that districts decrease density by 50% in each school. The hybrid option splits students into two groups by last name, cohorts A and B, that alternate two days of in-person and the two days of “asynchronous” distance learning without live instruction. On asynchronous learning days, students will complete materials independently through pre-recorded videos, online discussion boards and self-guided learning modules.

Wednesdays serve as a designated half-day of “synchronous” distance learning with live instruction for all students in both cohorts, according to the plan. “Synchronous” learning — which provides online instruction in real time with a teacher — may include a Zoom lesson, live discussions and more.

“The hybrid learning model is short-term. It is not a replacement for full-time, in-person learning, but it is a step toward that goal,” Shaner said in a statement.

The hybrid model, according to the district, will also help ease students and staff into buildings while allowing school officials to adjust processes before all of the students return.

Students who chose the RCS Virtual Campus option will continue with online learning without any changes.

First days back
The district returned to in-person instruction this week, requiring transitional kindergarten-12th grade, post-high school special education students and staff to wear face coverings during the school day and on buses. The district recommends that families provide cloth face coverings for their students, as well as a paper or fabric bag to house the mask during meals or breaks.

Starting Oct. 5, some students enrolled in special education programs — including ones for early childhood special education, autism spectrum disorders, cognitive impairments, severe multiple impairments, emotional impairments, and adult transition programs and services — began attending for half days.

On Oct. 8, elementary students began attending school half day by cohorts. Cohort A will receive a half day of in-person instruction, while Cohort B works on materials provided by the teacher from home, without live teacher instruction. On Oct. 9, the two cohorts traded places.

On Oct. 12, all RCS elementary and middle school students return to full-day instruction by cohort. Some special education students will also begin attending full day. A full day of in-person instruction will be 45 minutes shorter so teachers have time to connect with the group learning at home, according to district officials.

On Wednesday, Oct. 14, only high school seniors will attend school for SAT testing.

Beginning Oct. 19, all high school students will attend by cohort.

Parent concerns
On Sept. 28, the RCS Board of Education held a special meeting to go over the Rochester Community School District’s plan.

Various board members said parents had reached out to them to voice concerns about moving from at least four full days of live, online instruction in the remote model to just 2 1/2 days of live instruction — two days of in-person and a half a day online — under the hybrid model.

“As part of the phase up, we are moving from 0 minutes of in-person instruction to 760 and maybe a couple of minutes more than that. That is the true definition of phasing up as we get to our goal of full in-person induction, which is where we want to be,” said Corey Heitsch, the executive director for elementary teaching and learning.

“I don’t think there is any easy way to shift,” Shaner added.

Carrie Lawler, the assistant superintendent of secondary education, said she hasn’t talked to anyone “who thinks that remote is the greatest thing since sliced bread.”

“We’re educators who liked what school has typically been like up until last March. To be able to capture that teachable moment when your whole class is looking at you (dumbfounded) and right now, our teachers are sometimes looking at a black boxes on a screen, it’s sometimes hard to gauge where your students are. You can accomplish so much more when you’re in person, so this is the best way that we know to scale up to in-person and to get back to that place that we all really love,” she said.

Board President Kirstin Bull said a hybrid schedule is definitely more work for parents due to the two-days of “asynchronous” learning from home.  

On asynchronous learning days, Shaner said, teachers will provide students with materials to be completed independently.

“They are very committed to making the asynchronous time rigorous and making sure that it’s supporting that time that’s in the classroom,” Shaner said.

Many parents also asked the board to address why the district decided not to provide a live stream into the classroom on the two days each cohort is distance learning.

Shaner said he is aware of two districts that have attempted it — one of them, he said, is a very small district in Macomb County and the other is a larger neighboring district that has not yet begun live streaming — and said he continues to watch how that goes.

“As we consider live streaming, we have to be realistic about it. There are a number of unintended consequences that have to be considered legally, and there are a number of unintended consequences that have to be considered ethically, particularly when it comes to some of our neediest learners that need intervention and then classroom debriefing. I think it’s not as easy as an answer,” Shaner said.

Board of Education comments
The RCS Board of Education unanimously approved the Rochester Community School District’s return plan Sept. 28.

Michigan Law requires districts to re-certify their COVID-19 plan every 30 days.

“The board approved a plan that includes a hybrid, remote, in-person and virtual campus and actually a return to full face-to-face,” said Shaner. “Bear in mind that, once we get up to re-certifying time again, we may not be in a position that we would have changes — I don’t know. Because of the time we have to recertify and the time it’s going to take us to scale up and implement, there may not be a lot of change.”

RCS Board of Education member Michelle Bueltel said the board knows — from comments it has received — that there’s anxiety and anger about the changes.

“I think we have to remember that COVID Task Force has been talking about this for six-plus months and has been going over all the options that are out there, and the community hasn’t been involved in that,” she said. “As we go forward with this, I think we need to make sure that we are re-evaluating what we’re doing, and I think we need to get communication out to the families, whether it’s a handbook like other districts have done, but data and information for them so they know what to expect on each day, what their responsibilities are. I think we just need to provide more data and information and who they talk to if they aren’t comfortable with returning.”

Board member Andrea Walker said she knows there are “a lot of unhappy folks in the community,” “a lot of folks who are uncertain” and “a lot of folks who are just fine.”

“As a board, we’ve heard everything and we’ve also heard everything the admin, teachers, science, data and actual experts have had to say. … Given all of that, it is still the best option at the moment, in the moment, for our students,” she said. “There’s not a one-size-fits-all answer here, so there’s no way for us to please everyone.”

Board member Michael Zabat voiced his support for the updated plan.

“We have this plan. Is it perfect? No. But I have a group of people in front of me that tell me they are going to make it work, and these people have not let me down before, and I am going to support this plan because I trust the people in front of me to make it work and do right by the children of this community,” Zabat said during the meeting.

Board member Scott Muska said the district has the opportunity to make changes.

“Maybe in 30 days or 60 days from now, we have to switch it up and pull it back or step it up. We’re in a fluid process,” he said.

Shaner said all of this is “a continuous improvement process.”

“We continue on a daily basis, and an hourly basis, to assess what’s going well, what’s not going well and what we need to improve — and that goes with technology and curriculum,” he said.

Even when the district shifts back to full face-to-face instruction, Shaner said “it’s not going to be normal.”

“There are going to be mitigation procedures in place. There are going to be movement restrictions in place in the building. It’s not gonna be normal for quite a long time, I fear. And we have to remind ourselves that. Nothing that we’re doing has been done before. Everything is more difficult … but I think it is time to get our kids back in front of our teachers.”

The full presentation video and slides are available on the district’s website.

For more information, use the Talk to RCS feature on the district’s website at www.rochester.k12.mi.us.