Three Rivers School Superintendent Reviewed; Online Learning Discussed

TRCS Superintendent Ron Moag, upper left, listens to commentary by BOE members during a special meeting held to conduct his 2020 annual performance evaluation. (Screenshot from Google Meets via YouTube)

During a special meeting Thursday, the Board of Education (BOE) said it found Three Rivers Community Schools (TRCS) Superintendent Ron Moag to be “effective.” The statement came at the end of a closed session that lasted well beyond two hours. Thursday’s meeting concluded a two-meeting process wherein BOE members conducted Moag’s annual performance evaluation, facilitated by Rod Green of the Michigan Association of School Boards.

The full BOE statement, read aloud by BOE President Erin Nowak, said, “Mr. Moag has received an effective evaluation. His work during the COVID pandemic is recognized and greatly appreciated. The Board of Education looks forward to continuing building our positive relationship and continuing to provide great education for our students. Thank you, Mr. Moag, for your work this last year, and we appreciate it.”

BOE Members Discuss Third-Party Virtual Learning Platform

During a board member comment period near the end of Thursday’s special meeting, BOE member Anne Riopel requested the addition of an agenda item at the next regular meeting to discuss the efficacy of the third-party, online, virtual instruction platform Lincoln Learning. That meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. on December 7.

This past summer, prior to the start of the current school year, the BOE approved entering into a contract with Lincoln Learning in order to provide an all-virtual instruction platform for students and students’ families who did not feel comfortable with face-to-face school attendance amid the ongoing pandemic.

The platform does not make use of TRCS teachers directly, but state requirements mean that TRCS staff and faculty do serve as mentors and tutors to Lincoln Learning students, and work to effect regular, two-way communication with the students. Meanwhile, those students who have opted for face-to-face instruction or a hybrid approach are still receiving instruction from TRCS teachers. This remains the case even as the schools have temporarily shifted to a completely virtual instruction mode this week in response to a new pandemic health order from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

In her comments Thursday, Riopel said, “my concern is that prior to school starting, we had over 700 students that were interested in Lincoln Learning. By the time school started, it was over 500. Currently, there’s 300,” Riopel said. At a regular board meeting earlier this week, Curriculum Director Nikki Nash said a recent survey indicated that only 141 students wished to return for a second semester with the platform. The current semester ends January 22.

BOE member Kevin Hamilton, who works for the school district in Comstock, said that district is conducting virtual, livestream instruction with its own teachers. Hamilton and Riopel have both expressed concern about the Lincoln Learning platform previously.

Riopel said, “my concern is that back in the springtime, it was indicated that each of the classrooms would have a video and camera capabilities to allow teachers to do livestream teaching if it was necessary for us to go remote. That action hasn’t, to my knowledge, currently taken place.” Regarding the drastic reduction in enrollment and interest in Lincoln Learning, Riopel said, “to me that indicates that there’s a need to do something different, and we should at least have a full board discussion regarding that.”

Regarding the number of students dropping from the Lincoln Learning platform, Nowak said, she felt there was value in ascertaining how many who left did so to return face-to-face versus how many left TRCS entirely. She also said the rigor of the program may account for the reduction. “Parents and students didn’t understand the intensity of virtual learning. They didn’t understand the time commitment, and how difficult the virtual learning piece really is.”

Although continued use of Lincoln Learning for the spring 2021 semester is already approved as part of the “Return to Learn” pandemic response document the BOE adopted over the summer, the BOE has not yet appropriated monies to continue with the platform.

Nowak said she felt it inappropriate to conduct discussion on the matter without first getting a researched report on options from Moag, Nash, and other TRCS administration members. “I think it’s going to be much more productive if we know what decision we’re trying to make coming out of that out of that discussion, rather than just tossing ideas around,” Nowak said.

BOE member Dan Ryan agreed with Nowak. “I would be hesitant about making any decision in terms of changing the instruction, and delivery of the instruction, without their input,” Ryan said. Regarding the question of asking teachers to begin providing virtual instruction, Ryan asked, “is our staff ready for that? Have they been trained? If they were starting on Monday, could they do that? And, do we have the technology in place to support that?” Riopel said the faculty have had such training.

However, Nowak said, “I think the staff have been pretty vocal, loud and clear, that they don’t want to be responsible for both face-to-face learning and full virtual learning because that’s a large caseload to carry on their plate.”

Hamilton said Comstock teachers are handling both virtual and face-to-face instruction at the same time. “They livestream every hour, just like a regular schedule,” Hamilton said. “Here’s a district with less resources, and this is what they’re doing,” Hamilton said. He later continued, “Virtual is tougher in every single district, but what I’m seeing is it can be done and there wasn’t thousands of dollars spent on a third-party program.”

BOE member Geraldine Jaramillo suggested Moag, Nash, and others could contact the Comstock district to see what measures they have taken to make livestreamed instruction work. She said the only way to know is if “someone actually goes and checks it out.” Nowak said there might be other districts with which to have a similar conversation “that compare quite nicely to Three Rivers with our rural status, and our demographics, and our class sizes.”

For livestreamed instruction, BOE member Linda Baker raised concerns of internet connectivity problems where a student might experience gaps in transmission. Hamilton said Comstock some students have experienced connection challenges with livestreamed instruction. However, as with Lincoln Learning’s instruction modules, which are accessible any time, Hamilton said livestream video sessions are recorded and students can return to them and review them when they need to do so.

Although different from a scenario in which teachers would simultaneously provide face-to-face or hybrid and all-virtual, livestreamed instruction, this week’s transition to fully-virtual instruction in the face of new pandemic orders has gone well, Moag said.

“I can tell you, in what I’ve witnessed in the last 48 hours, and the turnaround, and getting kids ready, and teachers prepared, and the comments, which I sent one to you today, that they’re very comfortable with the remote learning, and that they’re going to be driving the instruction,” Moag said. With the the “training they got this summer,” he said, teachers are prepared for fully-virtual instruction.

Moag said he agreed with Nowak and Ryan regarding the importance of following the Return to Learn plan. However, he said, that plan requires revisiting options on a monthly basis, and TRCS staff and faculty are prepared for a variety of eventualities, including the possibility that HHS orders could mandate virtual instruction for the longer term. Following a request by Nowak, Moag said he, Nash, and others would begin preparing information for further consideration.

Dave Vago is a writer and columnist for Watershed Voice. A Philadelphia native with roots in Three Rivers, Vago is a planning consultant to history and community development organizations and is the former Executive Director of the Three Rivers DDA/Main Street program.