Utica Community Schools push back in-person learning until January

By: Kara Szymanski | C&G Newspapers | Published December 4, 2020


SHELBY TOWNSHIP/UTICA/STERLING HEIGHTS — On Nov. 19, Utica Community Schools decided to extend virtual learning until at least Jan. 19 as coronavirus cases have continued to rise throughout the district and community.

Robert Monroe, the interim superintendent, previously stated in a letter that the district’s plans to transition to in-person learning after Thanksgiving had changed due to safety concerns.

“We implemented a gradual return to in-person instruction so that we could monitor the safety data and control the COVID-19 risk for our families and community as a whole. Unfortunately, given the current spike in new cases coupled with the high percentage of exposures throughout the district, we must pause our return process and transition back to the remote learning environment,” Monroe said.

He said that this is not where they hoped to be moving into the second marking period, and COVID-19 has disrupted classrooms, quarantined students and staff members, and hindered the district’s ability to provide the personnel and resources to meet student needs. With the number of staff members quarantined due to COVID-19 exposure, finding substitute personnel has been a challenge.

On Nov. 19, Monroe explained in a letter the district’s updated plans to continue virtual learning until Jan. 19, well after the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services’ three-week pause order was set to expire.

“Our current plan is to transition students back to classrooms beginning Tuesday, January 19, 2021, following Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Please know our goal remains an in-person environment for our students. There are no easy answers, and we respect that the pandemic can be the source of strong opposing views. It is important we continue to work in partnership with respect and a commitment to our students,” he said.

The district based the extension of virtual learning on the belief that trends in COVID-19 cases would continue during the holiday season and afterward.

“While children and adolescents are found to be at a lower risk for COVID-19, we recognize the disease spreads quickly to individuals within the higher-risk categories. In the case of UCS, this impacts many of our staff members who support and care for our students every day,” Monroe wrote.

“A mid-January return provides us an appropriate distance from the anticipated spikes during the holiday season,” he also stated.

The district said it needs time for transitions between remote and in-person learning, and another factor in the decision is personnel. When people might have been exposed to COVID-19, they need to quarantine for 14 days.

“The result is that UCS and surrounding districts face significant problems finding substitute personnel to continue in-person instruction and support district operations,” Monroe wrote.

He said that the unpredictability of the virus makes it impossible to have a timeline for a return to in-person learning.

“At this time, the district’s plan includes following a similar process of returning students through a gradual process that will allow for time to implement, evaluate and make changes, if necessary,” he said.

Nicolie LaLone, a third grade teacher at Havel Elementary School in Sterling Heights, is finding some positives in remote teaching and learning.

“I will say, I have become a better teacher through this because I’ve been forced to identify what our most important objectives are for our students — both academically and emotionally. It has also put more of the learning responsibility on the students — and that’s not a bad thing! For example, where I would normally set up a science experiment for the students in a face-to-face setting, I am now giving them freedom to show me what they’re learning using materials they have at hand,” LaLone said via email.

She said students learned about buoyancy by building boats at home with any materials they had at hand, and they demonstrated “remarkable” creativity and comprehension.

“I look forward to the day when it is safe for us to return to the classroom, but in the meantime, I believe our students are persevering and developing life skills in this remote setting that they will both remember and will benefit from in the future,” LaLone said.

For more information, visit the district’s dashboard at www.uticak12.org.