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South Lake starts school year online

Plans for in-person, hybrid instruction when possible

By: Kristyne E. Demske | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published August 21, 2020


ST. CLAIR SHORES — Students in South Lake Schools will learn remotely, no matter their grade level, for at least the first few weeks of the 2020-21 school year.

Following a study session, parent meetings and two of its own meetings, the South Lake Schools Board of Education voted 6-0 Aug. 19 to begin the school year online. The board will review circumstances at each subsequent meeting during the school year to determine when it could implement the plan developed by a committee of teachers, administrators and staff for the school year.

“This has been the biggest and most difficult decision we’ve made,” said Board of Education Vice President Robert Penn, who made the motion to start online. “You can argue we’ve been deciding on life and death, in some ways. I apologize to anyone that doesn’t like the plan as set forth.”

After opening all grade levels remotely Sept. 8, the Board of Education will have a special meeting Sept. 23 to determine if it is safe to reopen buildings in accordance with the Reopen, Reimagine, Reengage Plan for South Lake Schools, or if students should continue to learn remotely until the Oct. 21 meeting of the Board of Education.

The Board did adopt the Reopen, Reimagine, Reengage Plan as presented, just delaying its implementation until it feels it is safe to have some sort of in-person learning.

The plan is different depending on the grade level, based on the fact that South Lake teachers had expressed concerns with having elementary aged children learning on a screen all day long.

If the area is still in Phase 4 of reopening when the district implements the plan, elementary students would attend in-person classes daily, while middle and high school students would rotate in-person instruction with online instruction to allow for fewer students to be in the buildings at one time.

The district will reallocate students throughout its elementary school buildings to keep grade levels together and allow for smaller, more even, class sizes. Kindergarten through second grade will be housed at Avalon Elementary, and grades 3-5 will be housed at Elmwood Elementary, regardless of the child’s home school. Students could still use their home bus stop; each bus would stop at each school in the morning and afternoon to transport students. In addition, families could keep their children in latchkey programs at their home school regardless of grade level; the student would just ride the bus either to or from the school he or she is attending to get to the correct latchkey.

“If we have all of the students in one spot for the grade level, that allows us to balance those class sizes to make them as low as possible,” South Lake Superintendent Ted Von Hiltmayer said during an Aug. 10 parent meeting held over Microsoft Teams. “We can then take the number of students at the grade level that we have left and spread them evenly across the teachers.”

Some parents expressed their disappointment at the plan to have their children change schools at the Aug. 19 Board of Education meeting, stating that, for instance, they bought a home in a specific area to attend a certain school, and that this is not the time to be forcing children to undergo a big change to unfamiliar surroundings. Board Trustee Julie Ann Magee said that she had also been against reconfiguration of the district at first, but now realizes that it may allow South Lake to offer in-person instruction sooner than some other school districts.

“We’re all Cavaliers,” she said Aug. 19. “We’re going to move forward in our reconfigured buildings, with all our highly qualified staff, as Cavaliers.

“We can all make the best of it and our district can come out on top.”

For parents that don’t want to send their elementary-aged children to school full time, the district is also offering an all-virtual option, the South Lake Digital Academy, which will be taught by South Lake teachers housed at Koepsell Elementary in Eastpointe, where the district will also house its preschool program. Families who choose the South Lake Digital Academy are making the choice for the entire first semester to allow the district to fully account for how many students will be in the building at one time.

The virtual schedule would allow the teachers to have regular meetings with their students and then give them assignments to complete offline so that they are not spending more than seven hours per day sitting in front of a screen.

When the South Lake Board of Education votes to implement the plan, students in grades 6-12 will follow a hybrid model that will allow for them to participate in daily instruction, either in person or using their district-issued iPad. One group of students will attend Mondays and Wednesdays, with the other group attending on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and the groups will alternate in-person instruction on Fridays.

“This provides a schedule that is the most flexible,” said South Lake Director of Instruction and Assessment John Thero.

When they are learning remotely from their iPad, they will sign in to attend class at the same time they would if they were in the school building, he explained at the parent meeting, allowing teachers to interact with in-person students and students learning online at the same time. Families could also elect to attend school entirely online, and Thero said if enough families select that option, the district could then offer up an entirely in-person option for a few families that might have childcare issues or a learning disability that is better accommodated in person.

However, students enrolled in a more hands-on class like culinary arts, band or an auto class who elect to attend school online only may have to come into the building at certain times to perform certain tasks, Thero said.

All of the remote learning will be different than what the district offered in the spring, Von Hiltmayer told parents. There will be livestreamed instruction and grades will be issued for work. The district is also working with Comcast and Verizon to find options for low-cost internet or hotspot service for families who don’t currently have access at home.

“Our goal is to provide them as close to a face-to-face experience that we possibly can,” he said.

Because students will all have a common device provided by the district, an iPad, the district will be able to provide more technical support and even connect to the device remotely to try to solve a problem.

Von Hiltmayer said the district is working with Macomb County to get enough PPE and cleaning equipment for the school year, including electrostatic cleaning machines for each building. The district also has enough disposable masks for every student and staff member to use two per day if they so choose. They are also allowed to bring their own masks from home.

The district is aiming to keep the same group of children together as much as possible at the elementary level, where they will only leave the classroom for bathroom breaks and recess. Lunch and specials will be held in the classroom.

South Lake will use Schoology as its learning management system and make sure that, across all classrooms and grades, the template looks the same so that parents don’t have to learn how to navigate different pages for different children. Power School will still be where parents access student grades and Performance Matters is the platform the district will use for online testing. Students will have one email and one password to sign on to all accounts using its Microsoft Office 365 single sign-in. Virtual instruction will be given via Microsoft Teams. The Board of Education approved the purchase of videoconferencing cameras and sound systems for the middle school and high school at a cost of $111,350 with a vote of 4-2 Aug. 19. Treasurer Melissa Gordon-Johnson and Penn were the dissenting votes.

Secondary students will access their assignments and turn them in using Schoology whether they are in class or remote to get them comfortable with the tools and make the transition between being in class and being at home easier.

While a student could transition to learning virtually with materials from their classroom teacher if he or she were to become sick and then could return to the classroom once they are well or have completed their quarantine, Von Hiltmayer said that students who choose the Digital Academy option could not switch back until the end of the semester because there wouldn’t be a seat available for that child.

What will happen if a student or teacher tests positive for COVID-19 will be dictated by guidance from the Macomb County Health Department, Von Hiltmayer said, and will depend on the level of exposure. Students will have their temperature checked daily and will be asked to stay home if they have a fever of 100.4 degrees or higher or exhibit any symptoms of COVID-19.

Students at the elementary schools will wear face coverings in common areas and on transportation and they will be encouraged, but not required, in the classroom. Students in grades 6-12 and staff will be required to wear facial coverings at all times except when eating.

“I hope everybody will get behind the plan,” Gordon-Johnson said at the end of the Aug. 19 meeting. “Even if you’re not on board, your children are going to look to you in how you present it and feel in front of them. If you rant and rave it’s not something that you want, your children will definitely pick up on that.

“Hopefully we can get back to face to face sooner rather than later, I just feel like remote online is the safest way to go for the time being.”