Three Rivers School Board Weighs 2021 Pandemic Options

TRCS faculty, administrators, and staff join BOE members during a virtual meeting on Monday, December 7, 2020. (Google Meets screenshot via YouTube)

At a work session Monday evening, members of the Three Rivers Board of Education (BOE) and Three Rivers Community Schools (TRCS) administrators weighed options for returning to school following the New Year. After some discussion, the BOE tabled any final decisions on the matter pending a review and clarification of further options by administrators. Further discussion will take place at a special meeting next Monday, December 14, scheduled at 6 p.m. for the purpose of reviewing an annual TRCS budget audit.

Currently, all TRCS classes are being conducted remotely through online platforms, except for some specific classes like those in special education programs. In accordance with an announcement made at the end of November, remote learning will continue through the end of the current semester on January 22.

At the time of that announcement, TRCS Superintendent Ron Moag said the deadline was set to ease planning requirements and reduce the number of adjustments that would have to be made for faculty and students, and to accommodate the likelihood that state health orders could be extended.

During yesterday’s work session, Moag and Curriculum Director Nikki Nash outlined a plan for the late winter and spring marking periods that follow the end of the current semester. Nash said the TRCS “Return to Learn” planning team reconvened last week to develop the proposed plan based on current pandemic information determined in coordination with the Branch-Hillsdale-St. Joseph Community Health Agency (BHSJ).

Under the plan, pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, and elementary students would return face-to-face at the start of the next semester on January 25. Secondary students, including middle and high school students, would continue with remote instruction into the third marking period, which starts at the beginning of the second semester. TRCS administrators would consult with BHSJ each week.

Based on the infection rate, Nash said they would hope to be able to make a decision about whether to return secondary students to face-to-face or hybrid instruction, or remain virtual, by March 1. For students or families concerned about the possibility of their students returning to the classroom, the Lincoln Learning all-virtual option would remain available, but would need to make a decision to choose the option by the start of the semester.

The idea, Nash said, is to limit the possibility for repeated or short-term instructional format changes, reducing stress and workload for teachers and students in what has already been an unconventional year. Nash said a survey among middle and high school faculty supported remote instruction as a better means of retaining the most possible student engagement amid possible uncertainty. According to Nash, faculty have reported improved engagement during the last few weeks of all-virtual instruction.

Several BOE members, including Julia Awe, Anne Riopel, Kevin Hamilton, Dan Ryan, and BOE President Erin Nowak, expressed concern about the plan for various reasons. Those reasons included its lack of flexibility and responsiveness to changing conditions, the academic, social, and emotional repercussions of keeping students away from direct interaction with teachers and their peers, and their ability to get help with instructional difficulties, among others.

Riopel said the existing Return to Learn (R2L) plan, adopted over the summer, already lays out the basic options available to TRCS based on pandemic conditions. The plan’s options are designed to coordinate with the state’s phased pandemic rating system. Moag said the R2L’s proposed plan for the next semester is simply a modification of the current one. He said it reflects, in part, the fact that the state is “operating in a hybrid” phase plan right now, which he said combined elements of more than one phase.

With possible safeguards in place like plastic barriers between student desks, Riopel said she felt it important that students have as much face-to-face instruction as possible, especially in the middle school where students might not have developed the maturity or discipline to stay current with virtual schoolwork. Nowak agreed that “face to face is best for kids,” but said she was not certain that some of Riopel’s safeguards are feasible.

Because they are not comfortable with the proposed R2L modifications, BOE members instead instructed Moag and Nash to provide more information in time for continued discussion on December 14.

If BOE members decide to reject the proposed changes and go instead with the R2L’s current form, the semester would begin on January 25 much as it did at the start of the fall semester unless state pandemic directives or consultation with BHSJ were to require something different. Primary students would attend in-person, secondary students would attend through a split-cohort hybrid model, and those who wished to do so could instead enroll through the all-virtual Lincoln Learning platform.

Next Monday’s BOE meeting will take place virtually and will be livestreamed for the public through the TRCS YouTube channel. Members of the public wishing to provide comment at that meeting will be required to do so in advance and in writing through the TRCS website.

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.