UCS community working toward safe return to fully in-person learning

By: Kara Szymanski | C&G Newspapers | Published March 5, 2021


SHELBY TOWNSHIP/STERLING HEIGHTS/UTICA — The Utica Community Schools district is continuing to work together to smoothly transition students back to in-person learning by taking safety precautions and collecting data from a recent survey sent to staff and families.

The district is trying to involve parents and teachers in the effort aimed at safely returning students back to the way it was before the effects of the worldwide pandemic.

Recently, there has been good news regarding COVID-19.

For a while, numbers had continued to rise and in-person learning looked less likely. However, with positive testing numbers now continuing to drop and vaccination rates continuing to rise, it appears that there is light at the end of the tunnel. The community efforts to slow the spread of the virus appear to be making a difference.

With the beginning of the release of vaccines, more and more teachers and community members are able to get vaccinated against the virus.

Robert Monroe, the interim superintendent, said in a letter to families Feb. 24 that the district is making a lot of progress to make returning to in-person learning possible.

“As more teachers, staff members and community members become vaccinated, we continue to make progress in the fight against this disease. Thank you for your continued support and partnership as we move forward with in-person instruction in our schools. Working together, we ensure health, safety and educational stability for our students,” he stated.

Recently, the district ended an in-person instruction survey that was completed by more than 6,200 staff members and parents. It is reviewing the responses to the survey to help make future decisions.

“As we analyze the results and prepare a summary to share with our community, there are a few themes that are already apparent. While there are strong and differing feelings regarding increased in-person learning, there is common ground and support in our community for continuing to move forward through a phased-in approach,” Monroe said.

With this in mind, these are the next steps in the district’s return to full in-person instruction, according to the Feb. 24 letter:

• Students in self-contained special education programs and secondary English learner courses were to return to four days per week of in-person instruction beginning March 1. Parents received information directly from the executive director of special services and principals regarding this return.

• The remainder of K-12 students will return to four full days — Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays — beginning the week of March 15. Wednesdays will remain remote learning days.

• The district’s goal is to return to full in-person instruction the week of April 19. By scheduling the full in-person return for one week after spring break, the district believes it will be able to better address any impacts of community travel during the annual break. UCS will have fully remote learning the week of April 12, which it believes will mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

• Students enrolled in the Virtual Academy will remain in online instruction through the end of the school year.

• The district is working toward a full in-person learning environment this fall. The Virtual Academy, taught by UCS teachers, will remain available to families that want to keep an online option for their students.

Monroe said that, as the district moves forward, safety for students and staff remains a top priority.

“We continue to leverage our community partnerships to increase the opportunities for our staff members to receive their COVID-19 vaccines. UCS will continue to stress important safety protocols, such as face coverings, frequent handwashing and use of disinfectants. We will follow (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines to provide distancing to the greatest extent possible. We also ask that our families do their part by following the self-screening protocols each morning,” he said.

Throughout the pandemic, teachers have had to alter their ways of teaching to ensure student safety. This has made things quite challenging, but it also has been a learning experience.

For Dan Roraff, a sixth grade math, reading and science teacher at Roberts Elementary, the experience of teaching both in-person and virtually has taught him many new things along the way.

Roraff said that the transition to in-person learning has gone well so far for him and his students, and he looks forward to seeing his students in person again.

“The transition to face-to-face learning has gone well. It is wonderful to see my students in person and to hear their voices without asking them to unmute their mics,” Roraff said in an email interview.

He said that remote learning had been a very different experience compared to in-person learning.

“Many students are hesitant to participate in class while learning virtually. At times, I felt I was talking to myself all day long. The face-to-face transition has allowed many of my students an opportunity to become active learners and showcase their dynamic personalities,” he said.

Throughout the pandemic, Roraff said, the students have taken it very seriously and have stayed positive.

“I am pleasantly surprised with the positive attitudes my students have about maintaining social distance and wearing masks. I have not once had to ask a student to put a mask on, and I have not heard any negative comments. My students are so happy to be in the classroom learning and working collaboratively. They have had no complaints about our safety restrictions,” he said.

Roraff said the next step for students is to begin fully returning instead of partially.

“The next step is to welcome my students back to all day face-to-face instruction. It will be nice to have a full classroom of learners and to have a somewhat normal school day. Although asynchronous learning can be effective, it is no replacement for face-to-face instruction,” he said.

Roraff said he has learned a lot about technology during this experience.

“Prior to the pandemic, I never attended a virtual meeting, much less taught a class virtually. I am much more technologically savvy as a result of the drastic changes implemented throughout the pandemic,” he said.

Roraff introduced a new tradition in his classroom due to the pandemic, and it has stuck.

“One thing I have introduced into my classroom is a morning song. Every day while learning virtually, we began each day with a song. Some songs were chosen to inspire with a positive message or uplifting beat. Other songs were chosen to make us laugh. Although many songs were chosen with the goal of initiating a virtual morning dance party and a positive start to our school day, this practice has continued and my students love beginning each day with a new song, whether in person or remotely,” he said.