West Utica Elementary teacher Breanne Werner, who taught third grade this year, undergoes the process June 3 of closing up her classroom for the school year.

West Utica Elementary teacher Breanne Werner, who taught third grade this year, undergoes the process June 3 of closing up her classroom for the school year.

Photo by Deb Jacques

Schools, teachers weigh all outcomes for fall

By: Eric Czarnik | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published June 5, 2020


STERLING HEIGHTS — High school graduations are over, and the last official day of the school year is approaching, June 11. But officials at Utica Community Schools and throughout the state have their own summer studies cut out for them: namely, how to reopen in the fall.

UCS Superintendent Christine Johns said her district is in the process of planning for opening in the fall for the 2020-21 school year.

“We are planning for as we would a normal opening, as well as have contingency plans so long as it’s safe for our students and staff,” she said.

Johns said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has set up a COVID-19 Return to School Advisory Council, which is tasked with coming up with strategies to conduct school safely, equitably and efficiently. Johns said the task force is soliciting input from stakeholders, and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Michael Rice sits on the task force.

The state superintendent has three work groups representing urban, suburban and rural schools that advise him, and UCS is part of the suburban work group. Johns also said the district is in discussions with the Macomb Intermediate School District over fall opening and contingency plans.

According to Johns, opening safely in the fall isn’t just a UCS issue, but an issue for all of Michigan’s estimated 1.5 million schoolchildren. She said the district communicates and plans with the county, its health department and various health providers on what to do in case of illness outbreaks, just as it did when the H1N1 swine flu hit around a decade ago.

UCS Chief of Staff Michael Bender said the district is considering three different scenarios for the fall: in-person, face-to-face; a blended schedule of in-person some days, online other days; and fully online.

“We may need to move in a particular area, and then we may need to adjust and move in a different direction, depending on the situation that we have,” he said. “We are planning to be flexible so we can adjust, so the students can keep learning no matter where we find ourselves.”

Johns said the second option might be required for classroom instruction while providing the necessary space — and smaller class sizes — that social distancing measures would require. She said the district is studying and exploring all three options, just in case.

She said the district recognizes that the ability to follow social distancing rules varies with student age, while also realizing that younger students have different learning needs than more independent high schoolers.

Other matters that Johns considered were the overall loss of learning that students have faced with the pandemic disruptions, as well as the economic impact of business closures.

“The economics and education are directly linked, and school funding is a concern for us,” she said.

Liza Parkinson, the president of the Utica Education Association teachers union, said there is a lot of anxiety among many teachers for the future. She said her union is waiting for actions and recommendations from Whitmer’s committee, and she hopes that the recommendations will offer consistency.

“These decisions all need to be made with all of the parties present: health care partners, educators, the unions that represent the educators, administrators,” she said. “Everybody has to be part of the solution.”

Parkinson added that many teachers would ideally prefer in-classroom teaching over online teaching because they want to be with their students.

“Teachers are very concerned about how they are going to deliver meaningful instruction while keeping their students safe,” she said. “It’s been very emotional for many of our teachers as they go to close out their classrooms.”

UCS teacher Jacqueline Zawierucha said in an email that it was really tough to not be able to see students in person for three months.

“UCS teachers used innovative and creative ways to make connections with their students, but we miss our kids and face-to-face instruction,” she said.  

“The connections we made did not fill that void of being able to see our students at the end of the year, wishing them well as they move on. It was especially hard for those students moving on to new levels of education that we will not see at our school in the fall.”

Zawierucha also said she knows the district is working very hard to meet the needs of all students while considering everyone’s health and safety.

“I am confident that whatever the plan is, UCS teachers will be ready in the fall to deliver organized, effective and engaging instruction to their students,” she said.

Find out more about Utica Community Schools by visiting www.uticak12.org.