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Ready or not, school year begins as leaders adopt plans to teach, protect students

In-person, virtual or hybrid models offered amid continuing pandemic

Editor’s note: The return of the school year has always been a time of expectation and excitement: new books, old friends, crisp football nights. This year, it’s all confusion and uncertainty, as the COVID-19 pandemic plays havoc with learning, students, families and schools. With most of Kent ISD’s 20 public school districts opening next week, School News Network talks to a sampling of superintendents about how they are balancing the imperative to educate students while trying to keep them safe.

As schools across the nation open their doors to students or keep them home in virtual classrooms — with wildly mixed results — Superintendent Scott Smith looks at his relatively quiet, rural district in Cedar Springs and sees a ton of work ahead. 

“Education is about building a strong foundation, but this year it’s like we’re trying to build this foundation on a sand dune — and not even one that’s flat but a dune with a steep hill,” Smith said. “We’re going to give a lot of grace and hopefully receive a lot of grace.”

Administrators across Kent County would likely add an “amen” to that, as they try to put together reopening plans amid the nation’s worst health crisis in a century.

Even seasoned superintendents have felt the frustrations of dealing with conflicting medical advice, different parental preferences and students’ aspirations for some semblance of normal schooling.

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Local supe works with governor on reopening ‘Roadmap,’ encourages equity in decision-making

Their decisions are guided by the Michigan Safe Schools Return to School Roadmap, which outlines required and recommended measures based on the status of the coronavirus in different parts of the state, and new state legislation on school reopenings. 

‘This is our Apollo 13 moment. We’re being forced to get creative and come up with new solutions.’

– Scott Smith, Cedar Springs Public Schools

But within that framework, superintendents and school boards must consider the virus’ incidence in their community, the wishes of parents and their schools’ capacity for protecting students and staff. All the while, they’ve been under pressure from the Trump administration to reopen schools physically or face possible funding cuts.  

Yet Smith and other school chiefs maintain a hopeful attitude, insisting that out of the messy problems of how to do school in a resurgent pandemic, learning will happen and even improve in time. 

Scott Smith

“This is our Apollo 13 moment,” Smith said, referring to the ingenuity that rescued a potentially disastrous moon shot. “We’re being forced to get creative and come up with new solutions. We’re going to learn things in the next 10 months that will make us better in the next 10 years.”   

Despite the formidable challenges and chaos they face, Kent ISD superintendents say they’re determined to give students the academic knowledge and emotional support they need, especially now.

“These are difficult times, but this is when we need to shine and provide leadership for our children,” said Heidi Kattula, superintendent of East Grand Rapids Public Schools.

Common Crisis, Different Conditions

Nationally, some of America’s 13,000-plus public school systems have already struggled in their openings. As of Aug. 18, 20 of the nation’s largest 25 districts had chosen remote learning only, including Los Angeles and Chicago, according to Education Week.  

But just as different areas of the country have experienced widely different infection and death rates, so have different sections of Kent County. While the City of Grand Rapids has seen more than 3,500 cases, several townships in the county’s northern, eastern and southern reaches have had fewer than 100, according to the Kent County Health Department. As a whole, Kent County has had more than 7,000 people diagnosed and more than 150 have died from the virus.

Those local case counts and infection rates factor heavily in how districts reopen: in-person, virtual only, or a hybrid of the two. Their decisions are guided by the Safe Schools Roadmap, which for now allows in-person instruction for most of Lower Michigan but with strict safety protocols. 

Kevin Polston

But though the Roadmap provides guidelines, it does not dictate exactly how districts should operate, said Godfrey-Lee Superintendent Kevin Polston, a member of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Return to Learn Advisory Council that helped create the map. As a result, the districts must make district-level decisions – which also subjects school leaders to countervailing pressures, Polston says. 

“I think we’re kind of stuck, because we always want local control in education, so the governor gave us local control,” he said. “And now there’s people that wish she would just make the hard decision for us. And that’s not how it works! The conditions across the state are very different.”

That means different resources, needs, facilities, funding and community spread of COVID-19 – not to mention the pandemic’s political volatility, he adds.

“We’re in a higher (COVID-19) case area here in Godfrey-Lee than, let’s say, Byron Center or Caledonia,” said Polston, whose district opens with remote learning and phases into in-person. “And unfortunately, there’s also some political ideology that’s getting in the way of us making decisions based in science and public health and learning. We have to set that aside as leaders.”

Little and Big Boats 

Most Kent County districts are offering either a choice of in-person and virtual learning, or a hybrid of the two. Several are starting the year virtual-only and phasing into in-person or other plans. All offer a virtual option. 

Besides virus data, superintendents, school boards and district study committees took into account parental preference as expressed in surveys taken over the summer. A countywide survey in June showed parents clearly prefer in-person instruction for educational quality, but felt their children would be safest at a distance. Some districts have taken their own surveys, too. 

‘If other districts are a speed boat, GRPS is a cruise ship. It takes time to get it turned around.’

– Leadriane Roby, Grand Rapids Public Schools

Local surveys and data both influenced the decision in Kent City Community Schools, a small district in northern Kent County, to reopen in person with an option for virtual learning. The community has experienced only a few dozen diagnosed COVID-19 cases, according to county data.

“All of the districts are doing something different, but Kent City is not Northview, Wyoming or Kentwood,” said Superintendent Mike Weiler. “We all have to do what we have to do and in our case our parents prefer this plan.”

Leadriane Roby

By contrast, Grand Rapids Public Schools plans to open online-only for the first nine weeks, with the hope of transitioning to a hybrid model. Besides being the strong preference of parents and staff, that approach makes sense due to the 14,500-student district’s size and the time needed to prepare for in-classroom teaching, said Superintendent Leadriane Roby.

“If other districts are a speed boat,” she said, “GRPS is a cruise ship. It takes time to get it turned around.”

She added that the district also wants to avoid any situation where schools return to face-to-face and then have to go back to online.

“We need time to ensure we are meeting the proper safety protocols, and then when we do go back into sessions we can do so without any starts and stops. We’re seeing some of that with districts in southern states, and that’s hard on families, students, staff.”

Next week: How schools are coping with rapidly changing virus conditions and the possibility of students or staff testing positive.

Elizabeth Brown, a special education teacher at Mill Creek Middle School in Comstock Park, works in her classroom on a new mentoring program that had to be redone because of changes required by the pandemic (photo by Karen Gentry)
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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers series and issues stories for all districts. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive 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 and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio


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