UCS students now to start the school year remotely

By: Eric Czarnik | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published August 12, 2020

Whether they registered for a virtual academy or not, all Utica Community Schools students will start their lessons online and not in a classroom this September due to continued concern over the spread of COVID-19.

During the Aug. 10 virtual Utica Community Schools Board of Education meeting, the board voted 6-0 to pass its return to school plan, and then voted 6-0 again to start the school year with remote learning until at least Oct. 30. Trustee Jennifer Prybys was absent for the votes. 

The new school year calendar marks the first day of instruction as Sept. 1, and parents will get emailed schedules Aug. 28.

As a result of the board’s decisions, students will either start the year learning remotely with the expectation of returning to the actual classroom later this school year, or, as an alternative, they may begin a parallel curriculum for at least one semester via the online UCS Virtual Academy.

During the Aug. 10 meeting, the school district presented its back-to-school framework, which did not dramatically change from what was discussed at the July 29 meeting. They reviewed the precautions that they have planned for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s various phases, especially 4 and 5, where social distancing measures could play a role in a classroom setting.

In order to guide and improve their approach to online education compared to last school year, district officials said they relied on a community survey that they conducted based on the replies of around 14,000 people. School officials at the meeting also cited recent COVID case statistics in the state and locally, including Macomb County, in their reasoning. 

After the meeting, UCS spokesman Tim McAvoy told the Sentry that another factor went into veering toward remote learning for now.

“Over the past week we’ve had to suspend high school programs at Eisenhower, Ford and Utica High School due to students testing positive for COVID-19,” McAvoy said, later putting the count at 15. 

In a statement, Superintendent Christine Johns said the district’s plan combines an attention to community health with offering fall educational options that “provide our families the same high-quality education that is the UCS standard based on the needs of each student.”

“We want our students’ year to be memorable not because of COVID-19, but because they built great teacher student relationships, had opportunities to learn amazing things, and were inspired to achieve beyond what they ever dreamed,” she said.

Many Facebook commenters reacted to UCS’s announcement. 

Among the disapproving commenters, some said the parents work away from home, and now they only have a short time to make adjustments. Others were skeptical of the effectiveness of remote learning, and parents of children with special needs also aired concerns. Meanwhile, one commenter blamed what happened on the public’s alleged lack of social distancing adherence.

According to a national WalletHub survey released Aug. 11, 55% of parents want in-person student education, and 32% of parents said they can’t work remotely.

According to UCS, students learning remotely via the non-virtual academy path can expect to spend part of the day listening to UCS teachers, who will teach them directly. Then the students will work on their own using curated online programs or prerecorded lessons. Teachers will take attendance and grade remote learning students. 

UCS officials said these students will meet their UCS classroom teacher online, and that teacher will continue to teach them after the district decides to reopen the classrooms.  

The remote learning period is supposed to last at least until Oct. 30, and school officials will monitor safety conditions in the meantime while coordinating with the Macomb County Health Department. 

Whenever the district decides it’s safe, it plans to gradually let “small groups of students” return to the school buildings. Student groups that the district is prioritizing for face-to-face education include those with disabilities or who learn best hands-on, officials said.

The virtual academy will be a parallel K-12 system run by UCS teachers that teaches the basic subjects plus electives. Participants must commit to being in it for a semester. The virtual academy has registration open until 4 p.m. Aug. 14.

No matter which track students take, all students will get access to a digital device for their school work, the district said.

Find out more details about UCS’s return to school and some sample class schedules by visiting www.uticak12.org/ucsreturnplan. For more information about the virtual academy, visit www.uticak12.org/ucsvirtualacademy.

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