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Superintendents: Keeping schools open remains the priority

Amid virus surges and differing mask mandates, schools work to stay in person

See related story on educators’ thoughts on pandemic

Kent ISD, Kentwood – The key focus of school leaders – juggling threats of COVID-19’s omicron variant with the need for in-person instruction – is keeping school doors open, area superintendents say.

“We are going to do everything we possibly can to maintain in-person programming for all our students,” said Kent ISD Superintendent Ron Koehler. 

Kentwood Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Polston echoed those thoughts: “We are prepared to shift to virtual instruction if need be. Our goal is to remain in person each and every day for each and every child.”

‘None of our superintendents are public health officials.’

– Kent ISD Superintendent Ron Koehler

Polston noted that while COVID-19 cases have risen, vaccine rates have as well, which is encouraging. He’s hopeful that cases of omicron will soon plateau and decline, eventually leading to what becomes a more manageable virus. 

Kevin Polston

The shift to virtual learning during spring 2020 and, for many students, last school year, made it very clear that students learn best in the classroom. At-home support and resources vary widely, and that makes a big difference in what students are able to learn when virtual, Koehler said. 

Research is also showing significant differences in learning between Michigan students who learned virtually and those attending school in person. 

“We know that’s also true here,” said Polston, who served as chairman of the Student Recovery Advisory Council of Michigan and contributed to the MI Blueprint for Comprehensive Student Recovery. “It also has impacts on our children’s social and emotional well-being and their connection and relationships with staff and students.”

An Update on Masking

In terms of continued virus mitigation measures, school leaders are making different – and difficult – decisions in their communities regarding masking, a hot-button, controversial topic that has overwhelmed the agenda for boards of education in many areas. 

“Our staff has been tremendous. We couldn’t be where we are without them. They pour their hearts into the school year and have been there to support our kids. That doesn’t come without a cost.”

– Kentwood Superintendent Kevin Polston

All districts have followed mandates and forwarded to parents the recommendations of federal, state and local public health authorities, Koehler said. The Kent County Health Department’s mask mandate for K-6 students expired at the beginning of the month, leaving the next move up to schools. A few districts, primarily in urban communities, have implemented their own mask mandates. 

Koehler said superintendents want more direction from health experts.

Ron Koehler

“We appreciate everybody’s point of view, and our goal is simple:  We want staff and students in schools, teaching and learning,” Koehler said. “None of our superintendents are public health officials. Their ask of health officials is to issue mandates for all when conditions demand. As parents skeptical of COVID-19 mitigation measures remind superintendents, they were hired as the chief educational official in their community, not the chief public health official.”

Koehler said another focus is making sure COVID-19 testing is available to all staff members.

In Kentwood, Polston opted to continue to mandate masking for all students and staff.

“I’m really proud of our kids and our staff and our families for supporting our mask plan, and we’ve had that K-12 since the first day of school,” he said. “We think that’s really helped us have our incident rate be consistently below county average. That’s been throughout the whole year, sometimes significantly below, even though we’ve been right around or possibly a little bit below vaccine rates.”

The last two years have led to staff shortages and educator burnout, Koehler said. Schools are struggling to keep their classrooms and departments staffed, and that’s a constant challenge. 

“They are doing what they can,” he said of districts juggling and shuffling to have enough staff members in the building and driving buses. Districts have hired permanent substitutes and have relied on other staff, including administrators, to fill in for absent teachers.

“That means we may have to get creative with how we deploy staff or look at some creative ways for how staff are used,” Polston added. “We know the impact on our children’s learning when they’re in person rather than when they are remote.”

Kentwood has floating substitute teachers who report to the district every day. Many paraprofessionals are also registered substitute teachers.

“Our staff has been tremendous. We couldn’t be where we are without them,” Polston said. “They pour their hearts into the school year and have been there to support our kids. That doesn’t come without a cost.” 

“This year is just hard,” he continued. “We are still dealing with the pandemic and the additional strain and responsibility that comes with the fact that we are all stretched thin.”

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. 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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