School leaders working together to plan for fall and beyond

Aim to protect student health, provide multiple learning modes

Now that school districts have distance learning up and running, local education leaders are turning their attention to the next urgent concern: the future of schooling. 

An ad hoc committee of 13 school leaders in Kent ISD is working on contingency plans to prepare for the next school year and beyond. Those include how to meet the instructional, social and medical needs of students and their families, and how to brace for the financial crisis wrought by the coronavirus epidemic. 

The group of seven district superintendents and six ISD staff aims to present a report May 15 to the Kent Intermediate Superintendents Association comprising leaders of all 20 public school districts in Kent County. Tackling everything from how best to teach students — whether online, in person or both – to protecting their health and well-being, the officials face a daunting complex of challenges. 

KISA Future Learning Committee

District superintendents:
Ron Gorman, Grand Rapids
Craig Hoekstra, Wyoming
Heidi Kattula, East Grand Rapids
Kevin Polston, Godfrey-Lee
Michael Shibler, Rockford
Scott Smith, Cedar Springs
Mike Weiler, Kent City 

Kent ISD staff:
Superintendent Ron Caniff, Kelli Brockway, Chris Glass, Sunil Joy, Ron Koehler, Kevin Philipps 

Source: Kent Intermediate Superintendents Association

‘Everything is on the table.’

– Ron Gorman, interim superintendent, Grand Rapids Public Schools

They plan to report their recommendations for discussion and approval by district superintendents, and take a community survey of the public’s perceptions and concerns, in order to move forward with preparations not just for the fall but for summer-school programs. They’re also looking at how schools will change in the long term beyond the 2020-21 school year.  

“We have to respond to the crisis that’s in front of us to make sure kids continue critical learning,” said Kevin Polston, the group’s facilitator and superintendent of Godfrey-Lee Public Schools. Leaders can build on the Continuity of Learning Plans districts have put in place under the statewide school closure, Polston said.   

“We drastically changed the means by which we deliver learning, in a timeframe I don’t think anyone thought was possible,” he said. “That said, how can we apply our learning from this experience towards innovating and iterating our delivery methods going forward into the future?”

Ron Gorman, interim superintendent of Grand Rapids Public Schools, says districts have to prepare for multiple scenarios

Students’ Health Comes First   

The working group is meeting again this week to hash out possible instruction methods and other challenges, with various re-entry scenarios contingent on how the COVID-19 pandemic evolves and how quickly the statewide lockdown continues to open up. 

“Everything is on the table,” said Ron Gorman, interim superintendent of Grand Rapids Public Schools. “To sit and wait and say we’ll come up with a plan when there’s a new executive order, that’s not the smartest thing to do.” 

If schools reopen in the fall, it’s imperative to protect students’ health and prevent further spread of the virus, officials say. They have discussed various implications, including how to monitor students’ health, the possibility of social distancing in classrooms, and that some parents may not feel comfortable sending their children to school buildings. 

The health and well-being of students and staff is the foremost concern, Polston said. 

“We have to make sure we have measures in place to support them,” such as food distribution, he said. He noted that since schools closed March 16, Godfrey-Lee has served more than 87,000 meals to students – more per month than were served monthly when schools were open, he said. 

‘We have to respond to the crisis that’s in front of us to make sure kids continue critical learning.’

– Kevin Polston, superintendent of Godfrey-Lee Public Schools

Instructionally, districts need contingency plans for classroom teaching, distance learning or a hybrid of both, depending on students’ needs and the extent of the pandemic, officials said. That will mean shattering “artificial barriers for how we pursue learning,” Polston said. 

“Time, place and space are irrelevant now. If the focus is truly on learning, we need lots of flexibility in how that outcome’s achieved.”

Providing enough laptops and internet accessibility is a key concern. GRPS has distributed about 6,500 district-owned devices, while other districts have supplied devices and internet “hotspots.” Another 1,000 Chromebooks were provided by Kent ISD to several districts that needed them. Godfrey-Lee is providing hotspots and six months’ free internet in partnership with Comcast. 

Kevin Polston, superintendent of Godfrey-Lee Public Schools, is facilitating a committee planning for the future of learning in Kent County

Working Toward Collaboration   

School leaders are also looking at how they can collaborate to best serve students academically, as well as shore up districts financially in the face of an expected drop in state funding. Preliminary numbers suggest schools could lose hundreds of dollars per student, which would be “devastating” for districts, Gorman said.  

They’ve discussed using summer-school programs as an opportunity to test out different instructional methods and share best practices with each other. 

“We would like to use some opportunities during summer school this year to really pilot some things that would allow us to hit the ground running in the fall,” Gorman said. 

School leaders are also collaborating with business and industry, higher education and the Kent County Health Department to devise strategies in dealing with an unprecedented educational, financial and health crisis, officials say. 

“This is a chance for us to add value to our community and make sure their basic needs are met,” Polston said. “Education is one of those. We’ve got to rise to the challenge, and I think we are.”

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio or email Charles.

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