In a reflection of statewide pressure to reopen winter athletic programs and other school activities, the Three Rivers Board of Education (BOE) adopted a resolution in support of lifting statewide restrictions that are currently in place. The resolution asks Governor Gretchen Whitmer and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to approve restarting school winter athletic programs. BOE President Erin Nowak clarified that the resolution would not actually reopen Three Rivers Community Schools (TRCS) sports programs and other extracurricular activities, but instead would ask the state to lift restrictions.
TRCS Superintendent Ron Moag presented a report by the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) showing the results of a recently implemented COVID-19 rapid testing pilot program among students participating in indoor and outdoor sports. The program tested 5,145 athletes and coaches in December and January.
St. Joseph County Commissioner and former Three Rivers City Commissioner Jared Hoffmaster submitted a comment in support of opening sports programs in advance of Monday’s work session. Hoffmaster said the “reward for participating” is “worth the risk” with proper precautions in place, citing a statistic from the MHSAA report showing “more than 99 percent” of students with clear COVID-19 test results.
Moag said Monday’s reopening of restaurants to indoor dining could serve as evidence that some activities can take place safely. He said MHSAA recommends holding sporting events without spectators as a mitigation strategy to minimize the risk of the pandemic’s spread. Moag also said TRCS can implement its own restrictions and measures.
BOE member Linda Baker said the testing conducted as part of MHSAA’s report doesn’t fully demonstrate the safety of reopening sports programs, because the testing took place during a period of restricted sports activity. However, Baker also said she would support reopening sports programs with proper control and safety measures in place, and with assurance that other districts would also adhere to safety standards.
Currently, HHS orders remain in place, restricting schools’ abilities to hold sports programs around the state. Moag said MHSAA met with HHS and other state officials on Friday to discuss the issue, and the state Senate has passed a resolution in support of lifting restrictions. Students athletes showed up at a demonstration in support of lifting restrictions at the Capitol in Lansing on Saturday. Moag also said he believes there is support among TRCS sports and extracurricular program leaders to lift pandemic restrictions.
Moag Provides Update on Primary Schools’ In-Person Learning
Following the end of restrictions that kept all TRCS students in a fully virtual instruction mode for most of November, December and January, primary school students returned to school about two weeks ago, while middle and high school students returned to hybrid instruction last week.
Moag said over the past few weeks, he has been able to spend “a lot of time out in the buildings,” and there is “considerable enthusiasm” among students who have been able to return to full, in-person instruction in TRCS elementary school buildings. Since reopening, Moag said although there have been some close contacts outside the school, there have been no known COVID-19 cases originating in schools at the elementary level.
In primary schools, students are eating lunches in classrooms, and group activities are limited in duration. Social distancing, masking, sanitizing and cleaning protocols remain in place as pandemic mitigation measures.
In secondary schools, some similar procedures are in place, although lunchrooms are in use. Measures to limit how closely students can sit to one another in cafeterias are in place. Moag said a six-foot distance is “not achievable in many instances,” but he said TRCS should be able to meet a revised HHS recommendation of three-foot distancing that applies specifically to schools.
The hybrid instruction mode in place for secondary students has changed slightly, such that all students attend school virtually on Mondays, where previously that happened on Wednesdays. Half of students attending in hybrid mode are in classrooms on Tuesday and Wednesday each week, and the other half are there on Thursday and Friday. Login procedures have changed as well, and Moag said students are showing better participation rates as a result.
Although there are still students participating in the Lincoln Learning all-virtual instruction option at all levels, enough students who participated in the platform last semester have returned to hybrid or in-person instruction that capacity adjustments have been necessary. At the end of last semester in January, 357 students were enrolled in Lincoln Learning. For the current semester, 262 students are enrolled.
Curriculum Director Nikki Nash said during the full-closure health orders that were in place between November and January, remote, virtual instructional platforms facilitated more collaboration among faculty and administrators. Now that students are back in classrooms, she said, TRCS is looking for ways to continue the advanced level of collaboration that came about due to the move to virtual instruction.
Regarding continuing with in-person instruction, Moag said, “now that we have them, we want to keep them.” Moag said the adaptations to make in-class instruction effective has been driven in part by teachers. “It’s amazing to see the confidence level of these instructors in using the technology at a level that they’ve never done before,” he said.
In-Person Instruction Discussed for Secondary Students
Although BOE members at a January meeting approved a plan to return secondary students to full, face-to-face instruction after a period of resumed, hybrid instruction, BOE members and TRCS administrators continued to discuss the plan at Monday’s work session.
Moag said that in a recent St. Joseph County School Risk Assessment report, several pandemic measurement metrics are “going down.” Moag said several of those metrics are now in the low-risk category. Two or more pandemic cases tied to a single building is a key metric for determining whether an individual school must close or take other measures, Moag said.
“It’s nice to see the numbers going down in some areas. It’s the cases per million that worries me,” recently-elected BOE member Ben Karle said. Karle said the county’s number of new cases per million remains above levels previously recommended for relaxing precautionary measures. “More bodies in the buildings raise the risk of transmission,” Karle said. He also suggested BOE members and TRCS administrators should “keep an eye on” new COVID-19 variants that are emerging.
According to statements Karle made from the provided reports, 38 percent of the teaching faculty has received the first of two vaccine doses so far. Karle and several others in attendance Monday said teachers who did not register in time were unable to receive vaccines. BOE member Anne Riopel suggested the possibility of providing a half-day of school in the near future to provide additional vaccination opportunities for teachers. Moag called the suggestion a “great idea” and said he would follow up on it on Tuesday.
“There’s no right answer, I believe,” Karle said. “We can’t take back a vote from a month ago,” Karle said. Karle stressed the importance of continuing to evaluate and balance infection rates against concerns about the way students and their families are impacted by learning platforms that keep them out of classrooms. “One of the biggest concerns is the quality of education we are providing,” Karle said regarding the use of staff who are not qualified teachers to supplement learning programs and other issues.
Nowak said it would be difficult to address the full range of possible concerns associated with returning students to classrooms but encouraged Moag and Nash to continue to seek information and data and to follow through with planned measures.
Moag said TRCS administrators are continuing to collect feedback from staff and parents. One teacher who submitted a public comment prior to Monday’s work session said while in-classroom learning is the most effective means of educating students, the risks and capacity issues around putting all secondary students back in school are still a concern. That person asked the BOE to consider extending the timeline for hybrid instruction model. During public comments, two parents expressed concern about pandemic impacts on a full return to in-class instruction and use of school cafeterias.
Leonard Provides High School Weight Room and Entry Update
Director of Facilities and Operations Brian Leonard provided a timeline update regarding ongoing improvements to TRCS facilities, including the status of bond bids. The improvements are part of a district-wide, bond-funded initiative to provide more secure entrances to schools as well as a variety of other improvements.
A bid process is scheduled to open on Thursday for improvement work on the high school entry and weight room. Pre-bid meetings for several elementary school improvements are also scheduled for later this week, with bids to open on March 4. For all bids, the process will include several levels of review of submitted bids by various parties, concluding with a presentation to the BOE and a vote on whether to approve a recommended bid on March 15.
Moag said once work commences, the entrances receiving improvements will be closed off to traffic. He said the schools are forming plans now for how to handle entrance and exit from each building during the construction closures. Moag said he and Leonard will provide timelines for middle school work as they become available.
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.