Godfrey-Lee Superintendent Kevin Polston has a deep understanding — perhaps better than most — of the hundreds of variables to consider when reopening schools during a pandemic.
As a member of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Return to Learn Advisory Council, he helped create the state’s “MI Safe Schools Return to School Roadmap,” which offers requirements and recommendations on reopening across Michigan. The governor sought the advisory council’s input on topics such as allocating CARES Act funds, in-person vs. virtual board meetings, state education requirements and facility cleaning procedures in order to create the roadmap that is guiding districts this fall.
“It’s been an honor to be appointed by the governor — well, for anything, but in particular, for the complex task of reopening schools,” said Polston. “We’re representing not just the community voice, but the voice of all school districts from a superintendent’s perspective.”
Godfrey-Lee’s demographics, with a high population of Latino families, have played an important role in the advisory council’s work. Polston said one of the reasons he was selected was to help provide perspective on equity, and he has been reviewing companion documents for the roadmap that will help districts statewide focus on equitable decision-making.
“To have direct access to the governor’s office to give feedback is great, and they’ve been very opening to receiving that feedback,” he said.
Sharing Information Locally
Polston’s work with Whitmer and the roadmap has enabled him to share information in more detail with his fellow Kent County superintendents, a group that collaborates and meets frequently to discuss plans. In particular, the advisory council’s partnership with epidemiologists and physicians has proved to be useful in explaining some of the roadmap’s guidelines.
“I’ve been able to bring to [other superintendents] some of the science behind why the roadmap says what it does,” said Polston. “Something that’s come up quite frequently is that the roadmap calls for parents to screen their child’s temperature. And many people say, ‘Why aren’t you checking temperatures at school, because I’m used to seeing that [at other public places] and it really helps me feel more comfortable.’
“But the science behind screening temperatures does not support it as a valid screen for COVID-19. So when [other superintendents] would ask, we could share that it’s actually not supported by science and give the citations that explain why, and they could go back to their community with the data.
“At a time when everyone was in dire need of information and when everything is moving so fast, that was probably the best help.”
Polston has also fielded questions about why school reopening plans are not consistent and look very different from district to district. While the MI Safe Schools Roadmap offers guidelines for reopening Michigan schools, it does not dictate exactly how districts should approach the process.
“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. … Each district has different resources, different needs, the facilities aren’t the same, the funding isn’t the same, the community spread of Covid-19 isn’t the same.
“We’re in a higher [Covid-19] case area here in Godfrey-Lee than, let’s say, Byron Center or Caledonia. 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.”
District Starts Remotely
As for Godfrey-Lee itself, the district will be starting school on Monday, Aug. 24 with 100 percent remote learning for all grades during the first two weeks. This is a recent change approved by the board of education on Aug. 10. Elementary students will return to in-person learning the third week of the semester, grades six to eight will return in person the fourth week and high school students will return in person the fifth week.
A fully remote learning option is also available and remote students will be taught by district teachers using Godfrey-Lee curriculum. The district’s alternative school, the East Lee Campus, will also remain fully remote for the duration of the semester.
Despite his work with Gov. Whitmer and helping create those reopening guidelines, Polston admitted it was not any easier to make decisions for his own district.
“In all honesty, we are choosing between bad and worse choices,” he said. “There are no good plans out there. … We’re going to move forward; our plans will be imperfect; we’re asking for grace. The plans, even with best intention, will need to be changed. And as leaders, we have to not be so married to any idea that we aren’t willing to be flexible.
“School will have to look different, and I think that’s the hardest thing for folks to do right now — set aside the traditional idea of what we think of with the start of school. We just have to give ourselves permission and grace to really reimagine how we do things to get through this pandemic.”