Dates for reopening Three Rivers Community Schools (TRCS) buildings to students have changed following a Board of Education (BOE) meeting Monday. After a lengthy discussion, BOE members voted to approve a schedule wherein Pre-K through fifth grade students will now begin attending school in person next Tuesday, January 19. Middle and high school students will return to hybrid learning as previously planned on Monday, January 25. However, they will now return to full face-to-face instruction two weeks later, on February 8.
Initially, Superintendent Ron Moag and Curriculum Director Nikki Nash said after consulting with the TRCS “Return to Learn” Committee (RTL), they recommended continuing with the previously approved plan to resume in-class instruction for primary students and hybrid instruction for secondary students on January 25. Under that plan, TRCS staff would contiunue to monitor the pandemic situation in coordination with the Branch-Hillsdale-St. Joseph Community Health Agency (BHSJ) for the possibility of returning secondary students to full in-person instruction later in the spring.
According to Nash, BHSJ officials say the county’s rate of new COVID-19 cases remains above the health agency’s recommended maximum for recommending face-to-face instruction for older students. BOE President Erin Nowak said it was her understanding that most secondary schools in the county have returned to face-to-face instruction, but Moag said his colleagues in the county have told him they are continuing with virtual instruction for the time being.
Nash said the pandemic remains at the Phase Four level in the state’s “Return to Learn Roadmap,” which includes a recommendation for six-foot-minimum social distancing. That minimum effectively limits that capacity of many classrooms, which means the six-foot distance necessitates continuation of the hybrid approach in which only half a class of students is in each classroom at a time while the other half trades off in attending virtually through online platforms.
BOE Member Anne Riopel was joined by Nowak and others in asking whether it would be possible to return middle and high school students to in-class instruction sooner. Riopel said in a recent address, Governor Gretchen Whitmer said data is showing schools to be comparatively safe as places where virus transmission is taking place, as long as proper cleaning and masking protocols are followed. Riopel also paraphrased an expression of hope by Whitmer that students be back in classrooms by March.
Nash said although schools may not be required to keep secondary students out of the classroom, TRCS has been consistently following advice from BHSJ since the start of the pandemic. She also said students and faculty members would require time to adjust to any changes in plans. Several TRCS principals in attendance mentioned possible logistical problems, such as adjustments for screening a higher volume of arriving students each morning and the challenge of having places for students to eat lunch without congregating in large numbers without masks.
BOE member Linda Baker expressed concern over the possibility that virus transmission could still take place in schools, and suggested recently discovered, more contagious variants of the virus might still have an impact.
However, Baker said she felt the stepped reintroduction of middle and high school students by first returning through the hybrid model before coming back face-to-face in February is a viable compromise. Nash, Moag, and several principals said they would adjust to whatever the board decided, but also said they would need a firm decision around which administrators, staff, students, and students’ families could plan. A motion to approve the revised schedule passed unanimously.
In a related part of his Superintendent’s Report, Moag said TRCS is awaiting word from the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) and BHSJ on decisions and guidance regarding whether there will be a winter sports season. Moag said the status of winter programs depends in part on whether there are any new health orders or extensions to existing ones from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, and in part on whether MSHAA decides to prioritize making a robust start at the spring sports season instead.
New Members Welcomed
Attendees at Monday’s meeting welcomed newly elected BOE members Ben Karle and Melissa Bliss to the board. Moag said the two were sworn in shortly before the meeting began. Nowak, Riopel, and other BOE members, as well as several public commenters, welcomed Karle and Bliss to their positions and thanked them for their willingness to serve.
Officer and Committee Appointments Approved
Also at Monday’s meeting, BOE members voted to reapprove the organization’s bylaws, and to approve its 2021 meeting schedule. In addition, the BOE approved assignments to a variety of positions, including officers serving on the Executive Committee as well as other committee appointments.
For the seat of BOE President, Baker nominated Nowak, who is the incumbent to the position, while Kevin Hamilton nominated Anne Riopel. Nowak was reapproved for the position by a vote of five to two, with Hamilton and Riopel casting the dissenting votes. All other Executive Committee seats had one nominee each, and each of those nominees were approved unanimously. Baker will serve as Vice President, Riopel will serve as Secretary, and Julia Awe will serve as Treasurer.
Subcommittee positions were approved as follows:
- The Facilities Subcommittee includes Baker and Nowak, with Bliss serving as chair.
- Awe will chair the Finance Subcommittee. Hamilton and Riopel will also serve as committee members.
- On the Policy Subcommittee, which includes Baker and Bliss, Riopel will serve as chair.
- The Curriculum Subcommittee will feature Baker as chair, with Awe and Karle also serving.
- The Human Resources Committee will include Karle and Nowak, with Hamilton serving as chair.
- Nowak will continue to serve as the BOE’s representative to the Labor Relations Network of the Michigan Association of School Boards. She said the BOE President typically serves in that role.
- The St. Joseph County Intermediate School District (ISD) School Board Association requires one representative and one alternate from each school district in the county. For the Three Rivers BOE, Riopel will continue to serve as the primary representative, and Baker will begin serving as the alternate.
Capital Improvements Going to Bid Shortly
During his Superintendent’s Report, Moag said planned improvements to construct a secure entrance and related facilities for the Middle School will go to bid soon. A pre-bid meeting will take place for prospective contractors and other pertinent parties on January 21, and bids will close on February 2. A recommendation will come before the Facilities Committee on February 9. Moag said a similar process for related work at elementary schools will commence in early February.
Facilities Director Brian Leonard described the planning and design process to date, running through a chronology of meetings and other process components. “I’m quite pleased and quite impressed with how this has all come together,” Leonard said.
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.