Back to school this fall poses major challenges amid COVID-19.

July 9, 2020

Hart High School student Tristyn Bigsby. OCP file photo

Back to school this fall poses major challenges amid COVID-19.

By Allison Scarbrough, Editor.

OCEANA COUNTY — School superintendents across Michigan are challenged with a heavy task of returning to school this fall in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mark Platt

After Gov. Gretchen Whitmer released her back-to-school plan last week, local educational leaders are trying to figure out how it’s all going to work. Hart Public Schools Superintendent Mark Platt and Shelby Public Schools Superintendent Tim Reeves have been working together to tackle the extremely difficult and constantly-changing situation.

“The governor’s plan was released last week, and there is a timeline in which we are working to have our plans approved by our boards,” said Platt. “We are anticipating that there will be some adjustments to the governor’s plan, which would provide more clarity to the implementation of a local district’s plan. At this time we are still awaiting the template from Lansing for writing the plan.”

The districts’ back-to-school plans must approved by their school boards by Aug. 15.

Platt and Reeves said they’re relieved that the state plan offers more options than anticipated. “We are grateful that two out of the three options allow kids in school five days a week.”

The Shelby High School Band.
– Contributed photo

Currently, Oceana County is included in a large chunk of the state that is in Phase 4 of the state’s six-phase re-opening plan.

Six of the state’s eight geographical regions — the Detroit, Lansing, Grand Rapids, Jackson, Kalamazoo and Saginaw regions — remain in Phase 4 of the plan. The Upper Peninsula and Traverse City region are in Phase 5.

Tim Reeves

Whitmer had hoped to move the entire state into Phase 5 by the Fourth of July weekend, but a resurgence of COVID-19 cases prevented that.

Oceana County has been identified as a hotspot for COVID-19 cases by District Health Department #10. As of July 8, Oceana has the highest number of cases in DHD #10’s 10-county jurisdiction with 353 total. Four people have died from the virus in Oceana, and 90 positive cases are listed as “recovered.”

The governor’s 63-page back-to-school plan is divided into three phases, the superintendents explained. Phases 1-3 are virtual learning only; Phase 4 is face-to-face instruction but with many safety requirements; and Phase 5 is face-to-face but with fewer requirements. Obviously, the school leaders are hoping that Oceana will be in Phase 5 in the fall.

“Phase 4 is a stringent use of masks, and Phase 5 is a relaxing of it,” said Reeves.

“We’re pretty confident there will be some clarification on the mask issue,” said Platt. “Grades 6-12 are wearing a mask during the school day in Phase 4. K-5 is only wearing them on the bus. Phase 5 relaxes more in the 6-12 world.”

Platt and Reeves are working closely with the West Shore Educational Service District addressing six key areas, including:

– Technology;
– Transportation, facilities, health and safety;
– Budget/pupil accounting;
– Curriculum, instruction and assessment;
– Special education;
– Career and technical education.

The most restrictive segment in Phase 4 plan is athletics, they said. The Michigan High School Athletic Association is going to make a decision in the next week or two about fall sports. If fall sports are allowed in 2020, fans should expect “significant changes compared to the past,” said Platt.

“The amount of requirements is enormous in Phase 4,” said Platt. In Phase 3, athletics are suspended.

“As much as we don’t like being in 4, from an athletic standpoint being in 4 is better than being in 3 because there are no sports,” Platt said. “If there is no sports, there are no extracurriculars.” Band will be an extremely “complicated” activity to handle in the midst of COVID-19 due to large groups and playing musical instruments. Both Shelby and Hart have widely popular music programs.

There is discussion of flipping around sports seasons, so the sports with more physical contact and larger crowd sizes like football would occur in the spring. However, the challenges to accomplishing that goal are astounding. “To me the worst decision is flipping them,” Platt said.

“It’s plausible that someone on your schedule is in a different phase,” said Platt of competing teams from other areas of the state.

“If you’re used to sports looking the way they have in the past, don’t plan on seeing it this school year. It will be very different.”

Reeves said indoor sports, such as basketball, pose many more challenges than outdoor sports, like soccer. “We’re stacking a few things against ourselves right there,” he said, including the fact that most indoor sports occur in the winter — traditionally flu season.

Whether there are sports in the fall or not, the majority of parents want their kids back in the school buildings and not remotely learning like they did the last three months of the previous school year. “Most parents when surveyed want to see their students to return,” Reeves said. “Our teachers want to see students back in the buildings for a lot of reasons. The product that we deliver here at our buildings is far better, far superior, when it’s in person than when it is delivered online or virtually.”

Because there is no vaccine for the virus yet, there is a balance of “best practice and safety,” said Reeves. “Delivering a quality product yet keeping kids safe and secure — that’s what we lose sleep over. Knowing the marriage of these two things and trying to navigate that is difficult.”

Based on surveys, 92 percent of parents want their children back in the school buildings, Platt said. “The biggest issue we hear about right now is the mask issue. People have strong opinions on it on both sides of the issue.”

Taking students’ temperatures before entering the school buildings is “strongly reccomended” under the governor’s plan but not required, said Platt. “We certainly are going to need parents to make wise choices before you put that kid in the bus.”

Both Platt and Reeves said it’s extremely important for parents to strictly monitor their children’s health.

Hart has three electrostatic sprayers on order for next year that can disinfect an entire classroom in two minutes, Platt said. They can also be used to disinfect busses. Shelby schools is evaluating the purchase of that equipment, Reeves said.

“We’re still in the seek to understand mode for a lot of this,” Reeves about the ever-changing landscape of school systems in the midst of COVID-19. The two superintendents of the neighboring rival schools have been in contact with each other nearly every day since the pandemic hit. “We are smarter and better together than we are on an island,” said Reeves.

Despite the challenges that have unfolded due to the pandemic, there are some “silver linings,” Platt said. “I think it will force some people in this profession to become better at things that they may not have embraced before. It will definitely increase our staff’s need to use technology differently.” Professional development will also be a key strategy. “We want to work on PD that makes (virtual learning) a better experience. I think it’s probable that at some point we end up back in (Phase) 3.”

Reeves said his focus is “monitor and adjust” as he navigates through the pandemic as Shelby’s school leader.

“Communication to the public is a major factor for us,” said Platt. Surveys have been a useful tool to gain parents’ input.

It’s likely that future school years will also be impacted by the virus since there is no vaccine yet. “This is going to be the most challenging year we have seen in our careers,” said Platt.

“People need to realize that it’s not us making the rules. We’re just trying to follow the rules,” Platt said. “It’s unchartered territory.”

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