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South Lake secondary students to return to classrooms in February

By: Kristyne E. Demske | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published January 24, 2021

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ST. CLAIR SHORES — In a year that’s been anything but typical, some St. Clair Shores students have yet to have the opportunity to sit in a classroom.

But that will change next month, when students at South Lake High School and South Lake Middle School will return to in-person learning in a hybrid format.

Ted VonHiltmayer, superintendent of South Lake Schools, said middle and high school students in the district have not been back in the classroom for in-person learning since the COVID-19 pandemic began. However, he said, the students have been participating in live, synchronous instruction over Microsoft Teams on district-issued iPads since the 2020-21 school year began.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has called for schools to offer in-person learning for all students no later than March 1, but VonHiltmayer said South Lake had already planned to bring secondary students back to the classroom in a hybrid fashion beginning Feb. 1, which is the start of the second semester of the school year.

According to a Jan. 8 press release from the state, Michigan’s goal is to have all districts offer in-person learning options for students no later than March 1, and earlier if possible.

This followed an announcement that vaccination of teachers and staff was beginning Jan. 11 due to educators’ roles as essential frontline workers.

“In-person instruction is critical for the current and the future wellbeing of children, especially young learners and students who are disadvantaged,” said Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon in a press release. “We encourage schools to reopen as soon as they can do so with proven protections for staff and students.”

The department asserts that the risk of COVID-19 spread can be reduced by wearing masks, improving building ventilation, frequent hand washing and social distancing.

“Over the last 10 months, medical experts and epidemiologists have closely followed the data and have learned that schools can establish a low risk of transmission by ensuring that everyone wears a mask and adopting careful infection prevention protocols,” Whitmer said in the press release. “I strongly encourage districts to provide as much face-to-face learning as possible, and my administration will work closely with them to get it done.”

After starting the school year entirely online, South Lake Schools did bring back its elementary students in later the fall and made changes to their schedules to minimize contact between groups of students. Similar principles will be used to create a block schedule for secondary students, VonHiltmayer said.

“Instead of six periods a day, they would only have three, so that cuts the number of interactions they have in half,” he said. Students will also be split into two cohorts attending school on different days. “Everybody will be in person at some point throughout the week, but we’re going to continue to do live synchronous (instruction). When Blue cohort is in school, Gold cohort (will be) virtual, experiencing the same lesson.”

Students in the Blue cohort will attend Mondays and Tuesdays, having periods 1-3 on Mondays and periods 4-6 on Tuesdays. The Gold cohort of students will do the same on Thursdays and Fridays. The cohorts will participate in classes online on the days they are not in the school building. On Wednesdays, all students will have all classes online to give a period of time between the two cohorts using the building.

Such a schedule also means students are not always experiencing one class online and one in-person, but they will have both methods for each subject.

South Lake is also shortening the school day by 90 minutes to give teachers time to provide one-on-one support for students who need help with academics, technology or social-emotional concerns.

“The needs are much greater, obviously, during this time, and even helping kids learn to use the technology was something we had to teach them,” he said. “It gives the students time where teachers can do small-group interactions. It’s additional support.”

The plan for secondary students to return to in-person learning Feb. 1 was approved by the South Lake Board of Education in November.

“In my personal opinion, there’s no replacement for in-person learning,” VonHiltmayer said. “We’ve done a very good job of educating our students remotely.”

He said it is nearly impossible to replicate online the interactions between students and teachers, and the interactions among the students themselves. District administrators have a blend of virtual and in-person meetings, and VonHiltmayer said he has found that they seem to have their best ideas when they’re meeting face to face.

“You can attend to a student’s needs much better when they’re in front of you than behind a screen,” he said.

He said he didn’t think giving the option for students to come back to face-to-face learning would be unreasonable for most districts, but the problem is more of a staffing issue if a district doesn’t have enough personnel to cover positions as staff members have to quarantine following exposures to COVID-19.

“For most people, they are trying to meet the needs of their communities at the same time as trying to meet the needs of their students,” he said.

To that end, for students or parents at the secondary level who are uncomfortable returning to any sort of in-person learning, the district will still enable the students to learn entirely virtually. Those students would just continue to watch all of their classes in a live, synchronous format instead of attending in-person lessons two days per week.

“We’ve really tried to meet the needs of everyone,” he said.

Students in Lakeview Public Schools and Lake Shore Public Schools have been in a hybrid format of attending school some days and learning online some days since the fall, with the exception of times when the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services decreed that high school students would need to learn remotely in November and December.

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