By SUE SUCHYTA
Sunday Times Newspapers
From Allen Park to Wyandotte, school districts are drafting plans for the upcoming academic year, which include online, onsite and hybrid learning models to provide students with COVID-conscious academic instruction.
School boards, weighing recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state of Michigan and the Wayne County Department of Health, Human and Veteran Services, are trying to determining class sizes and staffing needs to support both virtual and classroom instruction, as well as a hybrid option combining the two forms.
While some districts are offering students an online learning option which would span the entire school year, parents are voicing concern about being locked out of the brick-and-mortar option should COVID-19 risks wane.
Like snow days, but with much more serious health and learning consequences, districts grapple with opening decisions which will impact student and staff health, as well as desired learning outcomes.
Allen Park Public Schools Supt. Michael Darga said in an Aug. 11 letter to district parents that science and data, paired with caution and consideration, have shaped the district’s decision to delay in-person instruction. The district will utilize remote learning, beginning Sept. 2, which will continue online through at least Oct. 2, based on local COVID-19 transmission rates.
“Our vision is to transition back to in-person learning as conditions allow,” Darga said. “As educators, we know that learning in-person provides the best environment. Beginning the school year with remote learning, through September, provides us with the safest way to begin.”
The district is offering the option of virtual learning for the entire school year for parents selecting that option, with an Aug. 19 enrollment deadline.
Darga said that online learning will occur both in real time and independently, and emphasized that the fall remote learning will be more robust than the March emergency measures.
He said Chromebooks will be provided to all students and teachers, and Google Classroom will be used as a standardized learning platform.
Darga said there will be increased contact time for special education staff, and students with Individualized Education Plans will receive progress monitoring toward their IEP goals.
“As we consider classroom instruction, our special needs populations, transportation, food services and maintenance operations, the high degree of complexity and the costs associated with mitigating health risks during the pandemic are extensive,” he said. “There are still many unanswered questions as we continue to seek clarity, and await guidance regarding pupil accounting, and anticipate funding allocations that would help us more accurately align expenditures with available resources.”
Darga thanked parents for patience as the district navigates its new challenges.
“These are not easy times, and we want to provide a quality and robust learning experience for our students with safety at the forefront,” he said.
In contrast, the Lincoln Park Public Schools explains on its website that the district is advocating for in-school learning, provided it can be done safely.
Families wishing to opt for online learning were asked to enroll by Aug. 15 to allow the district to align its staffing requirements. While it currently will allow students to transition out of online learning as the school year progresses, it notes that the district reserves the right to establish a transition window or delay the transition.
Melvindale/Northern Allen Park Schools Supt. Kimberly Soranno was one of the first districts to announce that its school year would begin entirely on-line.
She said the decision gives teachers and staff members time to plan and learn to manage an online curriculum that will match face-to-face learning as closely as possible.
“At some point, when things become more stable in our state, we can easily transition back into classroom learning,” Soranno said. “The safety of our students and staff was at the forefront of this decision.”
She said the present plan released by the state does not incorporate social distancing to the extent which would protect student from the coronavirus.
“Returning to school in late August, with the heat, wearing a mask will not be conductive to the health and welfare of our students or our staff,” Soranno said. “There are so many unanswered questions. Please remain patient, and understand that the safety of our staff and students remains at the forefront of our decision.”
Riverview Community Schools will combine face-to-face, hybrid learning and virtual instruction, Supt. Russ Pickell said, beginning Sept. 8, provided the state of Michigan pandemic phase guidelines permit it to do so, and it can acquire and provide staff with the needed personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies.
He said kindergarten through eighth grade face-to-face class sizes will be determined by demand for the program and the ability to space out student seating.
Pickell said to limit high school crowding, students will follow a college model for instruction, rotating attendance over a two-week period, which will reduce class size by 50 percent, which would provide more efficient face-to-face instruction.
He said high school students will attend five classes instead of six, with an online option available if a sixth class is needed to meet graduation requirements.
Pickell said students may also select up to two virtual courses to allow for greater flexibility to attend electives which are best run in-person – such as art, physical education, band and choir.
He said schedule flexibility will be extended to high school students within the same household, so they may attend during the same rotation, and a hybrid rotational option for students in kindergarten through fifth grade will also be available.
Pickell said additional face-to-face learning opportunities may be available to students with special needs.
He said families will be able to select an exclusively online learning option, through the Riverview Virtual Academy, if they wish, for all grades.
“This option presents the lowest risk of exposure, and will be least disruptive when transitioning through phases,” Pickell said. “I strongly encourage families to choose this option, if possible.”
He expressed his gratitude to the School Re-Entry Task Force, and to the district’s staff, parents and students.
“I thank you for your patience and continued support as we navigate new requirements, interventions and programs,” Pickell said. “We will further need your patience and understanding as we implement the plan and make necessary adjustments along the way. Together we can get through these difficult times and provide for our children.”
Southgate Community Schools will start the school year exclusively online, Supt. Jill Pastor said.
She said the Continuation of Learning Team finalized a preparedness plan, which aligns with the Michigan Safe Schools Roadmap that was released June 30 by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
Pastor said that in preparation for an eventual return to classrooms, each school building in the district has been supplied with an electrostatic sprayer for daily classroom sanitation, and all classrooms and common areas will have hand sanitizer stations.
“We know that families may not be willing or able to have their children return to in-person instruction at this time,” she said. “Therefore, we are providing students with opportunities to engage in a rigorous online program, along with a laptop device.”
Taylor School District Supt. Ben Williams said that while all students will start the school year online Sept. 8 to 25, the district will offer families the chance to choose between face-to-face and online learning options for the remainder of the school year.
He said students opting to eventually attend face-to-face will be required to wear masks on school buses, in the school hallways and common areas, and in classrooms.
“Every student will be issued a digital device for learning that will be transported from school to home on a daily basis,” he said. “The district will maximize social distancing protocols, and thorough cleaning and disinfecting procedures.”
Williams said that as the district initiates a gradual re-entry plan for those opting for face-to-face learning, it will continue to monitor local COVID-19 case data.
He said those students whose parents opt for virtual learning will do so for at least the entire first semester. Families can opt to have some children pursue the online option, while others follow the face-to-face learning option.
Williams said students with English as a second language needs will continue to be supported.
He said breakfast and lunch for eligible students will still be provided, whether they attend face-to-face learning or online, in which case their parents will be able to pick up Grab n Go meals at specific pickup locations.
Trenton Public Schools will offer remote learning environments for all students, and a hybrid face-to-face, with some remote classroom instruction, for students in kindergarten through fifth grade, Interim Supt. Douglas B. Mentzer explained on the district’s website.
A Safe Start period, from Sept. 8 to 20, will mirror the state of Michigan MISafe Start phases, he said.
The grade K-to-5 hybrid option is a program which will enable students to attend school Monday and Tuesday, or Thursday and Friday, with additional at-home learning.
Middle and high school students will receive instruction at home five days a week, with synchronous and asynchronous learning.
Wyandotte Public Schools Supt. Catherine Cost said the district will offer remote learning in September, and will welcome students back to face-to-face learning when it is deemed safe.
She said parents wishing to enroll their students in online learning for a longer period may do so on a semester or trimester basis, or may opt to transition to onsite learning after the remote start in September.
Cost said students will be expected to log in during regular school hours during the remote learning phase, but they won’t be on screen the entire time, with some of the school day spent in small group or independent learning.
She said the district is exploring ways to offer hands-on classes and labs in September in a small group format.
Similar small group face-to-face instruction during September for students on an IEP are also being studied, Cost said.
She said Chromebook and packet pickup will be scheduled for the third week of August, with updates posted on the district’s website.
“The last five months have been more difficult than ever before,” Cost said. “Families have made great sacrifices, and ultimately, the health and well-being of our students is our top priority, a challenge we do not take lightly. I can only hope things will get back to normal as soon as possible.”