School district to begin year with in-person, virtual options

By: Jonathan Shead | Novi Note | Published August 27, 2021

Photo by Patricia O'Blenes

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NOVI — Novi Community School District Superintendent Steve Matthews announced at the Aug. 5 Board of Education meeting that families and staff within the district will have two options for enrollment at the start of the 2021-22 school year.

“For September 2021, the Novi Community School District will again begin the school district with two options. We will continue the virtual option for families who opted in during our spring enrollment. Our in-person option will return to five-days-per-week, in-person,” Matthews said.

The first day of school of the 2021-22 school year will be Sept. 7. As of Aug. 5, the district expected approximately 300 students across grades K-12 to be signed up for the virtual learning option at the start of the year.

While no formal board vote, or approval, was needed to move forward with the administrative team’s recommendations — the state-mandate that required boards of educations to approve a COVID-19 response plan has since expired — many of the board members voiced their support for the current plans.

“I strongly support this recommendation. I, too, have been fairly conservative in my approach in the past, but since the pandemic has gone on, we’ve had phases of no treatment at all for anyone and some real tragedies that happened in all of this. We’ve evolved to having treatments and vaccines, and I really believe in choice at this point,” Board of Education President Danielle Ruskin said at the meeting.

At the Aug. 5 meeting, Matthews recommended that the district move forward with virtual and in-person options, which included criteria for promoting that staff and eligible students receive the vaccination; that facial coverings be recommended but not required; that an emphasis be put on handwashing, cleaning, disinfecting and respiratory etiquette; that staff and/or students only be quarantined if they have tested positive for COVID-19; that as much social distancing be conducted as possible; and that those who feel sick stay home, as a recommendation.

While Matthews acknowledges the risks COVID-19 still brings to schools and communities, he believes the district’s lived experiences with positive case counts and death rates, greater access to vaccines, and recommendations from health authorities are what have led to a less conservative approach than what was taken during the 2020-21 school year.

“When looking at death rates between January 2020 through July 2021, we can see that COVID had a differential impact based on age,” Matthews noted. “There were 603,504 deaths in this 19-month period attributed to COVID, according to the CDC. Of those, 340 were children between the ages of 0-17 (years old), or significantly less than 1% of the total deaths attributed to COVID. By comparison, at the same time period for the same age group, there were 831 deaths attributed to pneumonia.”

Matthews said the recommendations coming from health experts have been hard to discern.

“I recognize that our responsibility is to a safe school environment. I also recognize we should follow guidance from experts, in this case scientists and doctors, who study infectious disease. The dilemma I’m faced with is that the data presents a muddled picture,” he said. “Some might argue that we err on the side of caution. I would suggest that we create a plan that provides us with a cautious but realistic approach to supporting staff and students.”

The district, Matthews said, stands conflicted as different sources indicate different recommendations for mask wearing and other pandemic precautions. While the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention both recommend all students and staff wear facial coverings while at school, expired emergency orders from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, such as the rescinded mask mandate that was lifted June 22, paint a different picture.

“The CDC is trying to balance concerns about the Delta variant and its impact, and the benefit of offering a five-day-per-week, in-person learning for students. The CDC emphasizes that children should return to full-time, in-person learning in the fall with proper preventative strategies in place,” Matthews said.

The recommendations put forward by the district administration Aug. 5 were not quite satisfactory for resident and parent Dan Peck, who has three children in the district.

“I strongly agree that having safe, in-person schooling is essential to their education, but recommended but optional, I don’t understand as a tenable position. A recurring theme tonight has been that of individual choice, where concerned parents can just mandate that (their) children wear masks. To be clear, as a parent, I don’t get to choose whether my child is protected by masking,” Peck said during public comment at the Aug. 5 meeting.

“The science behind masking has shown that they’re most effective at preventing the spread when being worn by an infected person. When my children wear masks, they protect the rest of the school from further infection. They get protection when other students also wear masks.”

Peck would like to see the district take recommendations regarding mask wearing more strongly before the start of the school year. He doesn’t want to see the district scale back its in-person option because the district “came out of the gate too quickly,” he said.

While board Trustees Mary Ann Roney and Tom Smith supported the district’s return plan recommendations, they don’t believe the masks worn by students and staff actually protect them.

“To say that (a cloth mask) is going to protect you, I don’t feel it does, and that’s my opinion, and I feel the consequences of these kids being masked, not being able to see if somebody is smiling at them, if their teacher is smiling at them, I think it’s more mentally harmful to them,” Roney said. “Unless the numbers go like they were last year, which I can’t see with people having the vaccine and antibodies, I don’t think we’re going to get there.”

The district, Matthews said, also plans to refine what metrics it will use to determine if, or when, additional precautions need to be added for the safety of staff and students. Matthews believes that the metrics used last year won’t work due to people getting vaccinated; however, he said he would bring more information to the board at a later meeting.

The Board of Education planned to vote on the district’s COVID-19 return plan at its Aug. 25 meeting, after press time.

“I hope our community believes that we care deeply about our kids. We care deeply about our staff, and we want them to be safe, but we need to balance the call for safety and the call for making sure our students have the opportunity to be in school.”

For more information, visit www.novi.k12.mi.us.

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