GRAND RAPIDS, MI — Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Grand Rapids Public Schools superintendent is recommending the school board initially adopt an online-only or distance learning model when classes resume Aug. 25.
“We said that the health, safety, and well being of our students and staff would be our top priority in decision making,” Superintendent Leadriane Roby said in a Monday, July 27 letter to parents.
“I believe starting with distance learning is the safest approach to the start of school.”
Roby is recommending teaching be online through the first marking period, which ends Oct. 21. During that time, she said district leaders will assess the decision and continue to prepare for a potential in-person or hybrid return to school.
The Board of Education is expected to vote on the plan at its Monday, Aug. 10 meeting. The details of the back-to-school plan are still under negotiation with the teachers union.
Kristian Grant, president of the school board, said there were no real objections to the virtual plan from board members but it isn’t finalized until they vote.
“Our priority is our students, keeping them safe. And our staff,” said Grant, prior to a virtual press conference Roby held Monday afternoon.
Districts across the state are considering back-to-school plans after having to close buildings in March due to the pandemic. Ann Arbor Public Schools, for example, has opted to start the 2020-21 school year in virtual classrooms.
Roby, who became superintendent July 1, told parents the district will create the “Family Helpdesk” to respond to general questions such as technology questions, student passwords and more. Parents may call at 616-819-2000 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
As of Sunday, there were 6,184 cases of coronavirus and 147 deaths in Kent County. Statewide, there were 1,478 new cases of the novel coronavirus reported over the weekend, taking the total cases in the state to 78,019.
The district surveyed parents and teachers who said distance learning was the most preferred option among hybrid or in-person classes.
When asked to rank in-person, hybrid and virtual learning as most preferred or least preferred, 48% of parents said virtual school was most preferred while 25% said they would most prefer in-person learning, according to district data. When asked what option they would least prefer, 57% said in-person learning.
Among teachers, 57% said virtual school was the most preferred option and 61% said in-person learning that in-person learning was least preferred.
Mary Bouwense, president of the Grand Rapids Education Association, said teachers’ working conditions such as hours, changes to the calendar and whether they are allowed inside the school buildings are still under negotiation.
“Teachers’ hearts are in their classrooms,” she said. “They want to be with their kids, but they don’t want to die. They don’t want their kids to die.”
Bouwense said the teachers are thankful to finally know what the plan is for the start of school but that many unknowns still exist.
“No matter what we said, it would just raise another mountain,” she said.
The district will release more details on the plan during the Board of Education’s Academic Achievement Committee meeting and public town hall Wednesday, Aug. 5, Roby said during the press conference.
When asked about supports for students, Roby said the district has protocols to help students stay engaged and will establish numerous “touch points” between the school and students, beginning with the teacher.
Roby said the plan is “adjustable and malleable” as the school year progresses. Depending on guidance from the state, GRPS could consider moving to in-person or a hybrid model ahead of schedule, she said.
“We are trying our best to make the best decision for our students and our staff,” Roby said. “Certainly, we know that with this decision, it has some impact on families.”
Students will have access to breakfast and lunch. Details of which will be announced later. The district provided thousands of meals during the spring when students were working remotely.
Over the spring, parents accommodated distance learning for their children.
The district will work on a “case-to-case basis to support each family” in the upcoming school year, said John Helmholdt, executive director of communications for GRPS.
“We recognize there will be some challenges,” he said.
The district’s plan will be “as flexible as possible” to help each family in the “ever-changing and fluid situation,” Helmholdt said.
GRPS distributed nearly 7,000 devices in the spring based on student need, In the coming weeks, plans are to distribute devices to the remaining students, he said. Students in need will also receive hotspots for reliable internet access
“Our goal is to have equity in technical and internet accessibility,” Helmholdt said.
The district’s distance learning plan also includes support and material packets for students with special needs where online learning is not the best option for the district’s “most vulnerable students,” Roby said.
Bouwense, who previously worked as a special education teacher, said she hopes teachers can schedule virtual time in small groups or one-on-one with students.
“We will provide what kids need as best as we can,” Bouwense said.
The district is recommending an increase in the amount of synchronous teaching at both elementary and secondary levels which will allow teachers and students to interact in real time.
Helmholdt said the district is aware of recent statements from the president’s administration about withholding federal funding to districts that don’t hold in-person classes.
He said GRPS will continue to monitor guidelines from the state and federal levels.
“We need flexibility to start school safely,” he said.
The superintendent said the district will continue with athletics in accordance with the executive order and Michigan High School Athletic Association guidelines. The district will also continue to provide meals to students.
“Thank you for your continued patience, understanding, and support,” Roby said.
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