Shores schools using dog days of summer to prepare a roadmap for fall

By: Kristyne E. Demske, Maria Allard | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published July 17, 2020

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ST. CLAIR SHORES — It’s officially summer vacation, but school administrators locally and throughout the state are using the time not to take a break, but to prepare for as many contingencies as possible for the next school year.

As she announced the release of the MI Safe Schools Return to School Road Map June 30, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer declared that Michigan is faring better than nearly all other states, but said that, “As we look toward September, we cannot let our guard down. We’ve got to remain vigilant.

“Wearing a mask today increases the odds we can resume in-person instruction in the fall.”

The Michigan Return to School Advisory Council released its MI Safe Schools Roadmap June 30 outlining a variety of steps every school district must take, depending what phase of reopening the state is in by the time students return in the fall. This means districts have to formulate three separate plans, depending on whether students are allowed to return to the classroom with few restrictions, as in Phase 5, or whether they will be taught online only, as in Phase 3.

“We cannot predict precisely how this virus will change in the weeks and months ahead,” Whitmer said. “These measures are designed to increase the likelihood of keeping Michigan schools open.”

If an area is in Phase 3 of opening, there will only be remote instruction allowed. Phase 4 allows in-person instruction as long as schools comply with many safety protocols and requirements, including facial coverings to be worn by staff, and by all students during transportation or while in the hallway, with facial coverings required in class for grades 6-12; providing adequate supplies to support healthy hygiene behaviors; and teaching and reinforcing hand-washing. Schools must also follow reporting requirements for COVID-19 cases and cooperate with the local health department.

Phase 5 allows for schools to reopen for in-person instruction with minimal required safety protocols.

As of July 16, the metro Detroit area was in Phase 4, but Whitmer warned July 15 that the state will have to return to Phase 3 of the reopening plan if COVID-19 cases continue on an upward trajectory.

 

Local districts speak out
A week after the roadmap’s release, local school officials say there are still more questions than answers about what class time may look like in September.

In Lake Shore Public Schools, Superintendent Joseph DiPonio said the district was working even before the order came from the state to give parents choices about what to do for the fall. The district held a series of outdoor meetings to gauge parent response and feelings on what they would like to see for school during the 2020-21 school year.

“The main thing that we wanted to make sure our families know is available is, if they’re not comfortable having their student return to school, we have 100% online available,” he said. “That’s really what people are asking about right now.”

The MI Safe Start guidelines require Lake Shore and other districts to come up with three different plans for the fall, and DiPonio said he and other administrators are working in conjunction with the Macomb Intermediate School District to make those plans. Plans must be developed by mid-August, he said, and which plan is used is contingent on Macomb County’s current phase of reopening.

“If we’re in Phase 3, that prohibits in-person instruction (and) would probably be similar to the continuation of learning” the district provided in the spring, he said. “If we’re in Phase 4, it allows in-person instruction, but there’s a lot of different requirements,” such as requiring students in grades 6-12 to wear masks.

According to the state, Phase 3 means that community spread of the virus is increasing and substantial, there is concern about health system capacity and testing, and tracing efforts may not be sufficient to control the spread of the pandemic.

Phase 4 means the number of new cases and deaths has fallen for a period of time but overall case levels are still high; most new outbreaks are quickly identified, traced and contained; the health system capacity can typically handle new outbreaks; but the overall number of people infected indicates the need for distancing to stop transmission and to move to the next phase.

In Phase 5, new cases and deaths continue to decrease, the number of active cases has reached a level where infection from members of the community is less common, widespread testing has caused positivity rates to fall, and rapid case investigation and containment strategies cause new cases to continue to fall.

In Lake Shore, DiPonio said, anecdotally, about a third of the population wants students back in school as soon as possible, about a quarter have indicated that they’re not comfortable sending their children back to school until there is a vaccine, and the remainder are somewhere in between.

“There were questions about masks and will they be required. If my child didn’t do well with online learning, how can we get him more help,” DiPonio said.

The district was trying to get a firmer grasp on that information with a parent survey sent the week of July 11.

“Based upon the Governor’s MI Safe Start Roadmap, Lake Shore Public Schools will provide a return to school in the buildings and an option for students to attend 100% virtual,” the survey read. “To better assist us with planning, please indicate your intention to have your student(s) attend in the building or 100% virtual learning with Lake Shore Public Schools for the 2020-21 school year.”

Students in Lake Shore are issued a Chromebook, and the district said previously that that technology helped them develop a continuity of learning plan for the spring that would be the jump-off point for online learning in the fall.

South Lake Schools Superintendent Ted Von Hiltmayer said the district has put together a committee made up of teachers and administrators to review all the documents provided by the state.

“Our focus is going to be on the safety of students and staff, and the academic needs,” he said.

Plans have to be completed and approved by the Board of Education by August 15.

“Thankfully, as we look at the different phases, if we were to be in Phase 1-3, then essentially we’re back to where we were at the end of the school year. We’ve already developed a plan for being online,” he explained. “We’ve done some surveying from our community about how that went (and) got some positive feedback.”

However, he stressed that the district can always do better and is investigating how it can improve instruction if that scenario is required.

“Phase 4, there are more stringent guidelines bringing students back to the classroom face to face. What is required in Phase 4 becomes strongly recommended if we get to that time (when the area is in Phase 5, so) if you’re able to plan for Phase 4, you’re essentially planning for Phase 5,” he said.

Working with the county is helpful, he said, to get all Macomb County districts at the same starting point while allowing districts to adapt the plans for their unique circumstances, as well as to help offset some of the costs districts will face in purchasing items for personal protection in schools.

South Lake Schools took delivery of iPads it had ordered for every student in the district, paid for by the third series of the 2014 bond, to be used starting in the 2020-21 school year.

“When this whole thing happened, we actually got an order in and it came in, and we’re in the process of getting them set up right now. We’re excited about that, especially as we work on our plan,” he said. “At some point, it could play a pretty critical role in how we’re working with the kids and educating them.”

It has not yet been determined which grade levels will be taking the devices home and which will have access to them only in the school building. South Lake is also working with different communication companies to determine different ways of providing Wi-Fi hotspots or reduced Internet costs for low-income families.

“If we are in a situation where we are online only and we have given a student a device, we would also look at what we can do to provide them that Internet service,” he said.

While the district will still offer Wi-Fi hotspots in the parking lot of every building, Von Hiltmayer said they’re looking beyond that to provide help to students.

 

Pediatricians want kids back in class
The Michigan Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, or MIAAP, said it supports the return of students to the classroom with COVID-related safety plans for a variety of reasons.

“We’re looking to make sure kids are able to return to the in-class experience, if possible,” MIAAP Executive Director Jared Burkhart said. “The data points out that kids are less likely (than) adults to get the (virus) and then transmit it. This is a virus that isn’t affecting kids as much as adults.”

Members of MIAAP, a nonprofit professional organization of more than 1,400 Michigan pediatricians, have concerns about the lack of social interaction for students when they are not in school.

“We know, especially for young children, a lot of learning is socially important. Being in groups and seeing friends is part of the school day,” Burkhart said. “A lot of that was taken away. Feelings of being alone and not being with your friends leads to more mental health problems, (including) depression.

“We’re all created to interact with other humans,” Burkhart continued. “They need to bond and create that social fabric around them. Isolation from humans gets to some people, mentally.”

The MIAAP and parents are concerned about children not receiving a proper education if they are learning only online, he said.

“In our discussions with parents in our pediatric offices, we have seen large discrepancies in available at-home learning support, which will assuredly increase the achievement gap. In particular, younger and special needs students rely heavily on having a constantly available, skilled adult at home to scaffold their child’s virtual learning, and an appropriate person for this role rarely exists,” reads the MIAAP’s statement. “Additionally, schools provide important support services, including meals, mental health support, therapy services for special education students, instruction for English language learners and school-based health services. If students are at home, this support structure is greatly reduced.”

“We all know the power of education,” Burkhart said. “Parents know their kids learn best in an in-person environment. We want to make sure kids can grow up and be productive adults.”

The MIAAP understands many elements must be considered to safely reopen schools, according to the group.

“Every district is going to be a little different, depending on many factors. Every school district needs a building-by-building plan,” Burkhart said. “The outbreak is affecting different communities in different ways. The southeast is different than western Michigan or the Upper Peninsula. That has to be taken into consideration.”

In order to allow movement toward the goal of face-to-face learning, the MIAAP advocates for some flexibility in distancing requirements. Those include symptom-screening, face masks, forward-facing seating, the use of partitions, hand sanitizing and other hygiene measures. Students are to avoid being in groups and sharing items, and educators must contact the local health department with information about anyone testing positive for COVID-19. School plans can expect to require adjustment as COVID data continue to emerge.

“We’ve all got to keep doing our part,” Whitmer said. “This is, ultimately, a brief moment in our history.

“Don’t go to packed, crowded areas if you have symptoms or work outside the home. Get a COVID-19 test. Wear a mask. It’s not about comfort, it’s not about politics, it’s not about vanity. It’s about doing what we need to do to get through this moment safely.”

On June 29, the Learning Continuity Work Group, based in Lansing, released a new website to help Michigan educators prepare for the coming academic year. The Keep Michigan Learning website, keepmichiganlearning.org, provides free resources to help educators assess teaching remotely. The Learning Continuity Work Group is composed of experienced educators and other professionals.

“We owe it to our children to find a way to give them quality educational options during this pandemic. We are in uncharted waters, and there is significant value in convening a group of thought leaders from around the state to examine barriers and identify practical solutions,” said West Bloomfield School District Superintendent Gerald Hill, a member of the Learning Continuity Work Group. “No one has all the answers, and we need to rely on each other to get through this difficult period. I am very impressed by the initial resources developed by the Work Group. I know school leaders will find them useful.”

The Learning Continuity Work Group created the Keep Michigan Learning website to help teachers plan for the return to school in the fall. The website supports face-to-face instruction, hybrid learning and 100% online teaching solutions that may need to shift with little notice based on public health data.

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