Districts consider multiple contingencies for next school year

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Schools in Michigan will certainly not function the same this fall as they have in the past, and there are still plenty of questions about exactly how they will change.

Superintendents across West Michigan are working to figure it out.

Superintendent Tom TenBrink said Jenison Public Schools has launched a steering committee made up of district administrators to create plans. Still in early talks, they are looking at a number of possibilities, but are optimistic students will all be in class. If that happens, there are dozens of items that must be considered.

“We’ll have to be prepared for social distancing, how we’re going to clean and potentially taking children’s and staff’s temperatures as they enter the building,” TenBrink listed.

He said one option for maintaining distance could be to have only half the students in a classroom at one time and the other half using the room on opposite days. Regardless, direct instruction would be provided to all students in some form every day.

That’s an idea Forest Hills Public Schools administrators are considering, too.

“There are pros and cons to all of these different schedules, but what we’re trying to figure out is what is the range of options to really coming up with those options first, and then looking at how we might evaluate those to see which options might work best,” Superintendent Dan Behm said.

Like other districts, his team is looking at staffing, how to sanitizing commonly touched surfaces and family schedules.

“We know that adults have to be working and they have to be in places other than their homes, and we’re going to have to take care of our community’s children in some way, shape or form,” Behm said.

Every superintendent who responded to News 8’s questions about plans for the fall hopes that the situation will allow for traditional, in-person learning, as plan A, but was also considering multiple contingencies. One would account for returning to school as scheduled, then seeing a lot of illnesses that include COVID-19 symptoms.

If another outbreak were to lead to another stay-home order, TenBrink said the distance learning plan in Jenison would be different than what ‘s currently in pace.

“Our remote learning plans that are in place are pretty phenomenal for the time we had to put those together. … But in the fall, it’s going to need to look different because that’s going to have to incorporate a lot more direct instruction hours in the day, so it’s going to have to be much more complex in terms of what those distance learning plans look like for our students and the families,” he said, going on to note that elective classes would also have to adjust. “If you’re in art class and everyone is using the same paint brushes, what does that look like in terms of cleaning those supplies on a regular basis? We can do the very best we can to sterilize the building, but as soon as those doors open, the germs come back in.”

Rockford Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Michael Shibler said his district also isn’t yet ready to make final decisions about the 2020-2021 school year.

“During the next 3.5 months, the influence of the virus on schools and the general public will continue to change; for the better I hope,” he wrote. “It is my opinion that students and teachers belong in classrooms, together, when the CONDITIONS ARE SAFE, as defined by health experts, for effective teaching and learning.”

Martin Ackley, The Director of the Office of Public and Governmental Affairs for the Michigan Department of Education, said it’s still “unknown” what will happen in the fall.

“…It will be very dependent upon the nature of the COVID-19 pandemic at that time. State Superintendent Dr. Michael Rice is currently working with education stakeholders across Michigan to develop guidance for local school districts to prepare to the next school year,” he wrote in an email to News 8, calling these “extraordinarily challenging and unprecedented times.”

Ackley also mentioned disparities across the state in access to technology and internet, which many districts have been working to address for the remainder of the current semester. Digital gaps mean not all schools and students can benefit from online instruction.

School administrators in West Michigan are working with others around the country to come up with best practices on how to move forward in the fall. They agree that they will have to wait to see the prevalence of the virus in each community before finalizing and sharing plans with families.

HOW WILL REMOTE LEARNING AFFECT FUTURE SNOW DAYS?

In early 2019, an arctic blast that lingered over West Michigan shut down many schools for more than 10 days, forcing some to extend the school year later into June. Now that so many districts are utilizing online learning, there is a possibility that “work-from-home” days could replace snow days in certain circumstances.

“That is certainly something we will evaluate,” said Kenowa Hills Public Schools Superintendent Gerald Hopkins, who is still working to complete the transition to remote learning for the rest of this year. “But the state doesn’t currently allow for this practice, so this would first need to be authorized at the state level. There is no doubt we’ll learn a lot from our current reality.” 

State education officials say it will be important that any policy regarding snow days is applicable and afforded to every district, school, teacher and student in the state.

Though Hudsonville Public Schools has never had to make up snow days, even last year, Superintendent Dr. Doug VanderJagt said he and his team have had in-depth conversations about providing instruction remotely during inclement weather days. He noted there will always be families with device and access challenges.

“I will say that if we had to go to consecutive days without students in the future, we definitely have options now to provide remote instruction during that time,” VanderJagt added.

Grand Rapids Public Schools spokesman John Helmholdt said it is too premature to know how new distance learning procedures may ultimately apply to snow days.

“We are in the process of distributing technology and wireless hot spots on a temporary loan basis,” he said. “Future distance learning would have to include a comprehensive plan for technology and internet accessibility.”