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Royal Oak Schools to begin in-person learning March 1

By: Sarah Wojcik | Royal Oak Review | Published January 26, 2021


ROYAL OAK — On Jan. 14, the Royal Oak Schools Board of Education voted 5-2 to proceed with a hybrid learning plan featuring both in-person and virtual elements starting March 1.

In a 4-3 vote, the board amended the original proposal that would have started bringing alternating cohorts of students back on Feb. 1, the first day of the second semester, instead pushing the start date back a month to March 1.

Royal Oak Schools Superintendent Mary Beth Fitzpatrick said the state of Michigan requested that all districts offer an in-person option no later than March 1 and earlier if possible.

She said the district’s current remote programs will remain in place until March 1, and specialized programs and services for special education students will continue to be scheduled as planned.

“We are all hopeful that the new vaccine and positive trends in the data in our area will continue as we work toward a return to in-person learning on March 1,” Fitzpatrick wrote in a Jan. 15 dispatch to district families.

She said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer recently allowed districts to use local data to determine when to return to in-person learning instead of relying on a countywide risk level rating.

The hybrid learning models resemble the plans the district had in place prior to a last-minute decision to reverse its decision to resume in-person learning.

In a unanimous vote during a Nov. 4 emergency meeting, the board reversed its Oct. 8 decision to bring students back to school buildings Nov. 9 — the first day of the second-quarter marking period.

Fitzpatrick said she made the recommendation to remain virtual after consulting with experts at the Oakland County Health Division. The district was also experiencing critical shortages of staff due to quarantine rules.

“One of the things we want to provide for before we come back to in-person learning is the chance for staff to move their technology back into their classes and begin to teach from their classrooms as we begin to get used to the new (technology),” she said.

The district invested in new cameras, microphones and smart boards for its classrooms.

Elementary and middle school students will be split into two cohorts each and follow a schedule of in-person and remote learning. Those who elected to remain learning virtually will receive synchronous, or live, and asynchronous, or recorded, lessons.

The district is still refining its plans for high school learning. The plans are dependent on how many students elect to return to in-person learning and how many wish to remain entirely virtual.

Some special education learning resumed earlier this month. More information about special education programs, as well as childcare programs, adult education and alternative education, will be forthcoming.

“We are looking forward to welcoming our students back into their buildings,” Fitzpatrick wrote in a Jan. 12 dispatch to district families. “Supporting and monitoring the health, safety, and social emotional well being of our students and staff remains a priority for everyone in Royal Oak Schools.”

Board Trustee Tim Ciechorski introduced the amendment to push the in-person start date back a month from Feb. 1 to March 1, citing safety concerns.

“At this point, I’m not convinced this is the best time to go back to school,” Ciechorski said.

Ciechorski, Trustee Lisa-Aline Hanes, Vice President Maryanne VanHaitsma and Trustee Erika Alexander voted in favor of pushing the start date to March 1; President Deborah Anderson, Secretary Marty Cardamone and Treasurer Allison Sykes voted against it.

“I have some reservations about the Feb. 1 date, but part of me says we have to go back sometime and pull the trigger, and I wish I could make that better for teachers and, hopefully, those that want to get it at least get one round of the vaccine before then,” Cardamone said. “But I think the amendment would be too disruptive of the plan.”

Hanes said her biggest concern was the burden of in-person education on elementary school teachers and encouraged the district to look into a way to alleviate burnout.

Anderson and Sykes cast the two “no” votes against proceeding with the hybrid learning plan starting March 1. Despite being supportive of some elements of the proposed return to school plan, Sykes said she could not support the plan in its “current iteration.”

Some board members and parents expressed concern for the three-class-per-semester model of middle school learning, worried that some students would fall behind in subjects like math if they had half of a school year off.

Mary Ann Campbell, president of the Royal Oak Education Association, said the ROEA is supportive of working together with the administration.

“I do personally, and my teachers have some concerns with this plan,” Campbell said. “Without the vaccine, my teachers are not 100% comfortable, but we are supportive of continued dialogue between us and the administration.”

More than 300 people tuned in to the livestreamed board meeting Jan. 14. Parents and teachers weighed in on the pros and cons of returning to school; namely, the importance of in-person education for students and ongoing health risks posed by COVID-19.

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