52 people address Three Rivers school board on hybrid classes

BOE members watch as Brian Leonard presents draft plans and renderings of proposed changes to entrances at TRCS buildings | Google Meets screenshot via TRCS YouTube channel

Note: an error in this article has been corrected since it was first published. Originally, it said three BOE members voted against face-to-face instruction, when in fact they had voted against returning to hybrid instruction. Those members included Erin Nowak, Kevin Hamilton, and Melissa Bliss, all of whom supported continued face-to-face instruction. The text has been updated to reflect the correct votes.

Members of the Three Rivers Board of Education (BOE) heard 52 comments from the public at its online work session this week. Shortly after the start of Monday evening’s livestreamed evening, BOE Chair Erin Nowak read each previously submitted comment aloud to board members, Three Rivers Community Schools (TRCS) staff, and the public. All of the comments pertained to a BOE decision in February to again return to the hybrid instructional mode for middle and high school students.

The hybrid mode is a COVID-19 pandemic mitigation measure. It involves having students in each class split into two separate cohorts. One cohort attends school in person for two days during the first half of the week, while the other attends for two days during the second half of the week. When they are not in the classroom, students attend their classes online. All instruction takes place with TRCS teachers.

The hybrid mode went into effect at the start of the current school year at the end of last summer. The BOE has had a number of conversations about when and how to return to face-to-face instruction. Over the past three weeks, students have been attending school in person full time, following the lifting of state-level restrictions earlier this year and amid growing consensus that there is lower risk of transmission, infection, and severe symptoms from COVID-19 among children than among adults.

The issue that led the BOE to return to the hybrid mode is a letter of understanding between TRCS Superintendent Ron Moag and the union that represents the school district’s teachers.

That letter dates to last August, when details for the hybrid model were being finalized, and it is still in effect. It provides certain protections to teachers in the face of the ongoing pandemic. It, and the measures by which the TRCS “Return to Learn” committee issues its recommendations for the pandemic, are tied to infection rates monitored by the Branch-Hillsdale-St. Joseph Community Health Agency (BHSJ), along with recommendations issued by that agency.

However, because some of the conditions that led to the agreement are changing, three BOE members voted against last month’s return to hybrid instruction, including Nowak, as well as Kevin Hamilton and Melissa Bliss. COVID-19 vaccination availability is increasing, and teachers have been permitted early prioritization for access to vaccines. That, along with analysis by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) suggesting the lower risk rates among children, have led to increased calls for a full return to classrooms.

Proponents of full face-to-face instruction cite increased academic performance problems and mental health concerns as persistent issues to have come from pandemic mitigation measures that keep students at home and isolated, and often without the supervision or direction of adults who must work regular jobs. Those same proponents also point to measures like face masks, social distancing, and regular cleaning regimens as alternative mitigation strategies, pointing to their effectiveness at reducing spread in other situations, including other school districts near Three Rivers.

About one quarter of Monday’s 52 comments were supportive of the decision to return to hybrid instruction. The cited the ongoing risk of pandemic infection and spread, and said they felt the hybrid option is still safer than attending school in person. While CDC staff and other health officials have said there is reduced COVID-19 transmission risk among children, not all students are low-risk, and when gathered together, all students can still be a vector by which illness can spread to others who are at higher risk.

The remaining comments were varied in their reasoning on the risk and their stance regarding BOE members, TRCS administration, staff, and the teacher’s unions, but they were consistent in opposition to the return to hybrid instruction. Some asked the BOE to stop going back and forth between hybrid and face-to-face modes, saying the inconsistency and repeated transition and adjustment adds to the stress of an already-stressful year for students and staff. Others asked the BOE to be consistent in its measures for evaluating the risks.

The comments came from a mix of parents and students, as well as two TRCS educators. A few accused the BOE of prioritizing students’ needs over those of teachers, saying the decision to return to hybrid instruction was based on fear or laziness.

BOE member Anne Riopel said her decision to support the return to hybrid instruction saying that it was motivated by a desire to “appreciate our teachers” and maintain their trust with respect to last year’s letter of understanding. Riopel said she wanted “to honor any commitment we made to them. That may seem negligible to some people, but it’s not. Our teachers are important to us. We need to look at all of our options, and that’s where we’re at right now.”

TRCS administrators and BOE members addressed the public concerns in several ways. Several board members thanked the public for their comments. Riopel suggested two possible ways of testing students for COVID-19 on a regular basis, which would come with some associated costs. Moag said the “Return to Learn” committee planned to meet on Tuesday, and would work on plans to return safely to face-to-face instruction “as soon as we can” based on the latest numbers from BHSJ as well as any new developments in safety and mitigation practices.

Following a closed session at Monday’s meeting, the BOE also voted to authorize Moag to renegotiate existing agreements with the teacher’s unions in time for approval at the next regular board meeting, which is scheduled to occur on March 15.

Also in TRCS and BOE business:

  • Director of Business Operations said a recent court ruling relating to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) makes it possible for TRCS to return some monies to teachers and staff that was previously taken from their paychecks as part of their tax withholdings. A similar ruling took place in 2018, at which time some monies were also returned. Brindley said in the current case, TRCS has treated the withholding item as a shelter for employees, and it is available for return to them. BOE members approved a measure authorizing Brindley to compensate teachers for the withholdings.
  • Facilities Director Brian Leonard provided a detailed presentation to BOE members showing renderings and plans for each of the new construction projects at TRCS facilities under the “Secure Entrances” initiative. The project involves reconstructing entrances at the middle school and several elementary schools to provide better oversight and control. There are also several other facilities improvements under the initiative. Plans are in draft form, and subject to subsequent approval by TRCS administrators and the BOE.
  • BOE members approved three new hires for Three Rivers Middle School on Monday, including Shayna Brooks, guidance counselor; Jennifer Burg, science teacher; and Angela Pearson, English language arts (ELA) teacher.

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.