UCS aims for face-to-face this fall

Schools, teachers prepare plans in back-to-school rollout

By: Eric Czarnik | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published August 6, 2020

 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.

File photo by Deb Jacques


Sept. 1, the first day of the 2020-21 school year, is quickly approaching, and the Utica Community Schools’ strategy is taking shape for teaching while keeping people as safe as possible against COVID-19. 

In a July 27 letter to parents, UCS Superintendent Christine Johns said the district had staff teams working on their plans for the upcoming school year to conform to the MI Safe Schools Return to School Roadmap. During a July 29 special meeting, the UCS Board of Education and administrators further deliberated over their latest proposals on how to get back to school safely in the fall.

The school district is still aiming for the typical face-to-face classroom instruction as its goal, but school officials recognize that they need to make a transitional path to remote learning involving the same teachers and classmates. 

“In each case, while the educational process may look different and even change partway through the year, every student will experience educational excellence,” Johns said in her letter.

At the July 29 meeting, Johns thanked team members who helped design the plans, comparing the plans to a three-legged stool based on health and safety; educational excellence and access; and effective implementation.

“This fall will be different,” she said. “As this community has already demonstrated, we will respond by working together with innovation and resilience.”


Safeguards set for September

The district has contingency plans based on which phase Gov. Gretchen Whitmer sets through her six-phase MI Safe Start Plan. The district will move to total remote learning for phases 1-3, and in-classroom education will happen with various levels of restrictions and safeguards for phases 4-6 while a parallel virtual academy runs. 

Currently, Michigan is in phase 4, which means that face-to-face classroom learning will be an option if the current phase doesn’t regress. However, school officials realize that a return to phase 3 — or a significant COVID outbreak — would mean a return to remote learning, so they are working to make such a transition possible.

Furthermore, the governor’s executive orders may impact how plans evolve or operate.

“While it is a challenging time, it is also an exciting time,” Johns said in a statement. “Regardless of the learning platform, we remain committed to meeting these challenges through a vibrant educational environment where every student can grow and succeed.” 

For instance, within phase 4, staff and pre-K-12 students would have to wear masks or face coverings on the bus and in common areas, including hallways. Staff and students grades seven and up would have to wear masks in classrooms, and students K-6 would also share that requirement unless they are able to remain with their class throughout the day, without having contact with additional students. 

Meanwhile, at the school buildings, indoor assemblies across classes would be banned, and thorough hygiene and cleaning policies — such as hand-washing and sanitizing — would be in place, officials said. 

And according to the latest proposals, students will face the same direction in class and be socially distanced as much as possible. Students’ personal possessions will be separated from other students’, and sharing will be limited. 

According to the district, family and guest visits will be greatly restricted, and relevant records will be taken. 

Meanwhile, under phase 4, the district plans to make bus transportation and food service continue, with adjustments. Extracurricular athletic and music activities could still happen in that phase, though spectator events would only happen outdoors and have a maximum capacity of 100 people under phase 4.

In addition, staff will do daily self-screening health checks. UCS will work with the Macomb County Health Department to do screening and contact tracing if someone gets COVID-19. According to officials, that means that people who were fewer than 6 feet from an infected person for more than 15 minutes will have to isolate themselves for up to 14 days after being exposed.

Anyone who gets COVID-19 symptoms including fever will be separated and picked up by a parent, emergency contact or ambulance. Then the individual must not return until full recovery or testing negative. The school district will abide by confidentiality under law.

High schools will keep their 7:20 a.m.-2:14 p.m. schedule, but junior high schools will make their schedules 10 minutes later, 8:20 a.m.-3:11 p.m. Elementary schools will have one of two schedules: 8:20 a.m.-3:10 p.m. or 9:10 a.m.-4 p.m.

The school district planned to approve its final plans for the new school year Aug. 10 and submit its plans to the Macomb Intermediate School District Aug. 15.

Board of Education President Robert Ross told the Sentry that the district must make a few additional changes to its plan. But he called the current preparations “a coherent, comprehensive and nearly complete plan that addresses all of (the) other issues there will be.”

But Ross said the district will have to take external factors into consideration, and those may be impossible to predict. 

“It would depend on what transpires over the next two weeks,” Ross said. “The governor instituted and reduced the (capacity) of indoor gatherings. The plan was developed before that.” 

In response to the overall UCS safety plans, Liza Parkinson, the president of the Utica Education Association teachers union, said the state roadmap contains policies that are required and others that are highly recommended. She said she wants UCS to fulfill the highly recommended ones in order to keep children and employees safe.

“We think it’s very important to follow the government roadmap at the highest standards,” Parkinson said. 

Virtual academy takes shape

Even as classrooms prepare, the fall UCS Virtual Academy will also kick off to welcome students and families who have medical concerns over health risks. The district says the academy’s academics will be parallel with classroom instruction and will be taught by UCS teachers.

The district emphasized that the Virtual Academy will assign a UCS teacher and a digital device to each student involved. 

“But, make no mistake, the technology does not substitute for the relationships between our teachers and students; our UCS educators know the importance and power of building positive connections with students to engage and empower them in meaningful ways,” Johns said in her letter.

The Utica Education Association said in a statement that it discussed the topic with UCS officials for weeks, and they came up with an informal agreement July 23 about how the virtual learning program will operate.

The UEA said the virtual program will be rooted in the current, local, brick-and-mortar instruction and curriculum and will be supplemented by selected online resources. Online students will be assigned a UCS teacher. 

The union said the new virtual academy plan will be the wisest use of the district’s money, staff and time, adding that it’ll be a safeguard in case the district has to make online learning standard due to the coronavirus. 

“If a child must move between settings, the locally developed virtual learning environment will ensure continuity in their learning experience. All children will get the same resourced education,” the union said.  

“To promote consistency, educational quality, and the best use of resources, UCS and UEA agreed not to use a third party for the virtual learning environment.”

In a statement, UEA President Liza Parkinson discussed the virtual program and said she was excited about the collaboration.

“I feel more confident in the quality of the online experience because it will be directed by Utica teachers,” Parkinson told the Sentry. 

According to UCS, the virtual academy features both live teacher instruction and online content. It has a parallel curriculum with the same level of academic rigor to meet state standards, officials said. The class days, calendar and grading will follow typical classroom expectations.

Whether in the classroom or in the virtual academy, every student will get a digital device, UCS spokesman Tim McAvoy said. 

School officials say the virtual academy’s registration period is open through 4 p.m. Aug. 14. People may register by visiting uticak12.org/ucsvirtualacademy. 

Find out more about Utica Community Schools by visiting www.uticak12.org or by calling (586) 797-1000.

Call Staff Writer Eric Czarnik at (586) 498-1058.