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What will school look like in the fall? Community leaders prepare for various scenarios

After 10 weeks of virtual learning and teaching, it’s the question on the mind of just about every student, teacher and parent: How will school look in the fall? 

Instruction will likely start with a hybrid model of in-person and virtual instruction using staggered schedules to ensure a safe return, said Godfrey-Lee Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Polston, who hosted a Kent Intermediate Superintendents’ Association virtual press conference Thursday. 

“School districts are looking at how to provide choices across the spectrum to meet all students’ and parents’ needs,” said Polston, chair of the KISA Futures Committee. Some families may opt to continue remotely.

Shantel VanderGalien

The KISA is working on plans for all Kent ISD districts to utilize for reopening schools. They are collaborating with and learning from many key community partners, including those participating in the press conference: Kent County Health Department, Spectrum Health, Black Impact Collaborative, and the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce. The 2020-2021 Regional Teacher of the Year, Shantel VanderGalien, provided a teacher perspective.

Data about the coronavirus will drive the decisions, these leaders emphasized. Local superintendents are creating contingency plans for several options and seeking flexibility for the state when it comes to seat time, days and hours.

They are also seeking input with an independent survey conducted by marketing firm Gartner and Associates. Families in every Kent ISD district will receive an invitation via regular school communication to complete the survey. Responses will be collected through June 10.  

One thing is certain: “We know return in the fall will not look exactly like it did prior to the governor’s announcement March 13,” Polston said.

Kevin Polston

Health and Safety Come First

The well-being of students and staff is their first priority, superintendents say, and they will continue to seek guidance from the Kent County Health Department in deciding how to resume schooling safely.    

Administrative Health Officer Dr. Adam London said he expects there will be some physical distancing, age-appropriate personal protective equipment and disinfecting of surfaces. It’s likely there won’t be 60 students on a bus or 30 in a classroom “until we have better ways of stopping transmission, and making sure that is a low-risk environment for our children,” he said.

“It’s very wise to prepare for some degree of social distancing when schools reopen,” London said. “It’s highly unlikely that the school experience is going to be back to normal anytime soon.”

Noting the coronavirus is largely spread through close proximity and inhalation, he said, “We know the indoor environment and group gatherings are inherently riskier than other environments. As you know, that also describes the traditional classroom setting.

“We’re never going to get to zero risk,” London said, but by incorporating the best science and case studies, schools should be made “as low-risk an environment as possible. We need to get kids back to school. We need to make sure education doesn’t suffer because of this pandemic.”

When it comes to sports, bands, field trips and extracurriculars, districts are working with health professionals and the Michigan High School Athletic Association for guidance.

“We are hoping those elements can still be a part of the school experience. However, safety will always dictate that,” Polston said.

Heidi Kattula

Drawing on Business, Health Community 

Schools are learning from safety practices of businesses as they re-open and from Spectrum Health. Spectrum’s President and CEO, Tina Freese Decker, pledged to continue partnering with the schools. Besides its Healthier Communities program that provides many school nurses, Her organization is working with school leaders on guides for returning to school and to child care.

Heidi Kattula, East Grand Rapids superintendent, said she spoke with a school in Israel where classes have been open for a month without a disease outbreak, with reduced class sizes and three-meter distancing. She said schools need to “think outside the box,” such as holding half a class one day and the other half the next. 

Part of the equation is the comfort factor, and the survey will help gauge whether parents and guardians are comfortable sending their children back to school. “I think there’s no question that if there is an outbreak or a requirement  to close the school for any reason then our staff will have to move back into a virtual platform,” Kattula said. 

‘It’s highly unlikely that the school experience is going to be back to normal anytime soon.’

— Dr. Adam London, Kent County Health Department

Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Rick Baker said the education and business community will share best practices. “We are learning from one another,” Baker said. “We look forward to supporting the safe, successful reopening of our education system because it does play such an important role in our economy, both immediate and long term.”

School and business leaders talk about collaborating to reopen schools safely

Funding Cuts ‘Devastating’

Compounding the challenge for schools is a looming shortfall in state aid, which a recent budget conference estimated could mean cuts of $700 per pupil. And yet the safety requirements and other needed measures are “going to require more resources, not less,” Polston said.

“If the cuts are anything like we think, this will be devastating for not only our school district but all the school districts in the state,” said Ron Gorman, interim superintendent of Grand Rapids Public Schools.

“We need a more robust response to protect K-12, because the cuts are not sustainable. There’s no way that any district can sustain the cuts that are being proposed at this time.”

Ron Gorman

Ensuring Quality Instruction

School leaders continue to assess how to run schools differently and maintain quality education. The family survey will help create those plans.

“What worked during district learning? What needed to be improved? What can districts do moving forward to support students and families?” Gorman said.   

Equity has to factor in as well, said the Rev. Dallas Lenear, chair of the Black Impact Collaborative, a newly formed group of black-led and black-serving organizations. 

“Inequities across numerous systems were pre-existing conditions in Greater Grand Rapids,” Lenear said. “Many of these conditions were a daily reality to people in the black community. However, COVID-19 has worked to shine a bright light on these inequities for the entire community as well.”

The survey will gather racial, ethic and socioeconomic data to help analyze the impact of the pandemic and how it manifests in different ways in the community. 

‘We know return in the fall will not look exactly like it did prior to the governor’s announcement March 13.’

— Superintendent Kevin Polston

2020-2021 Region 3 Teacher of the Year Shantel VanderGalien, a Wyoming Junior High English teacher, said the first priority of teachers in her own school and others was meeting the needs of families. She said she and her colleagues asked students weekly about their needs, whether for technology or resources.

“I’m feeling hopeful, and I want all parents and the community to know we are going to work tirelessly to make sure we deliver high-quality instruction – no matter if it’s from home or if we are in school and we have half the class, the whole class or if it’s a blend of being online and in person.”


Schools are Opening Worldwide, Providing a Model for the U.S.

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is managing editor and reporter, covering Kentwood, Lowell and Wyoming. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013, and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio


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