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RETURNING TO SCHOOL: MAPS developing ‘fluid’ plan for coming year

Marquette Area Public Schools' Graveraet Elementary School along Front Street in Marquette is pictured. MAPS officials are discussing how the upcoming school year will proceed amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Journal file photo)

MARQUETTE — Many factors will come into play as Marquette Area Public Schools starts the 2020-21 school year on Sept. 8 amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

One thing is for sure though: Parents favor the move back to face-to-face instruction.

MAPS Superintendent Bill Saunders told the MAPS Board of Education at its virtual meeting on Monday that the Upper Peninsula is in phase five of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s MI Safe Schools Return to School Roadmap, which was announced in late June.

Phases four and five allow for face-to-face teaching, but phase six, he said, calls for a return to “normalcy.”

“We as a district don’t have any control over what phase we end up in, so that’s left to the state and the governor,” said Saunders, who noted the school district could be pushed back to phase three or four even as early as next week.

A school bus is pictured picking up a student during a previous school year. Many factors will come into play as Marquette Area Public Schools starts the 2020-21 school year on Sept. 8 as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. (Journal file photo)

“Going through and making sure we have adequate plans in place, depending on the phase, is key,” he said.

Saunders said he has assembled a committee to navigate the road map.

He also has noticed in various state survey data that about two-thirds to 80% of parents want to see a return to face-to-face instruction.

“We know it’s great for the socialization of kids,” Saunders said. “We know a lot of kids learn better in a face-to-face environment than they do online.”

However, Saunders said the district needs to approach the face-to-face platform with the health and safety of students and staff as the top priority.

Marquette Area Public Schools' Bothwell Middle School is pictured. MAPS Superintendent Bill Saunders told the MAPS Board of Education at its virtual meeting on Monday that the Upper Peninsula is in phase 5 of Gov. Gretchen WhitmerÕs MI Safe Schools Return to School Roadmap, which was announced in late June. Phases 4 and 5 allow for face-to-face teaching, but phase 6, he said, calls for a return to Ònormalcy.Ó (Journal file photo)

What’s also important, he pointed out, is a “sustainability approach.”

“We don’t want to put families and students on a roller coaster of ‘We’re in school, we’re out of school, we’re in school,'” Saunders said. “That may happen through the governor’s plan.”

One of the approaches the committee has taken is putting in “rigorous” requirements for face-to-face instruction, with the plan able to be changed based on new data and information, Saunders said. The district also will be in contact with the Marquette County Health Department.

Face masks will be required among staff and students.

“That’s going to be in classrooms and in common areas,” Saunders said. “We’re going to (do) everything we can to promote social distancing, and we’re going to take the steps to essentially try to avoid the spread of COVID within our buildings.

Cherry Creek Elementary School is pictured. The school is in the Marquette Area Public Schools District, which starts the 2020-21 school year on Sept. 8 with a "fluid plan" as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. (Journal file photo)

“We know we don’t have control of people’s actions outside our buildings.”

Online opportunities

MAPS also wants to address the online learning component desired by some parents.

Saunders said MAPS likely will have several online options designed for each educational level to keep students on pace for graduation.

He said that currently over 150 students have signed up for the online option. He estimates ultimately 500 to 900 students will choose online learning.

Those numbers could impact the district’s per-pupil foundation funding.

“So far the Legislature has not addressed that decline in enrollment,” Saunders said. “We are hoping to keep as many of those students registered through MAPS so we can get them that online platform and not lose foundation allowance.”

If families choose a nonpublic school option, it would be “devastating for the district,” he said.

“Essentially, it would bankrupt us in one year if they didn’t enroll through us,” Saunders said.

Several weeks ago he put out the word that MAPS would offer online opportunities.

“I think most of the parents that have contacted us are looking to register through whatever online options that we’re going to offer our families,” Saunders said. “In that case, it’s still likely to have a significant cost and impact to us as a district. Those programs are not cheap.”

In fact, he pointed out it could cost the district millions of dollars, depending on how many students opt to learn online.

“I hope that we’re looking at a plan, a contingency approach, that says, ‘Well, we’re going to have some kind of a response team that gets put in place so that kids who are struggling online have access to online mentoring,'” MAPS Board of Education Trustee Keith Glendon said.

Saunders said the state requires a board-approved plan and timeline created by Aug. 12. To that end, he called for a special online board meeting at 9 a.m. Aug. 12 to approve the district plan.

“This is going to be fluid as we continue (to) move forward,” Saunders said. “I don’t anticipate — even by Aug. 12 — even having all the answers. I anticipate having the answers that we need for the state plan, which still won’t have the level of detail that we need as we move closer to Sept. 8. But the big umbrella picture will all be in place and will need to be approved by our board on Aug. 12 to turn in to the state by Aug. 15.”

He indicated details might be “tweaked” 45 or 60 days in the school year.

“We’ll hit those milestones and we’ll take a look at what’s working and what’s not. And we’ll be fluid and flexible as we move forward through this pandemic,” Saunders said.

He also addressed purchases related to COVID-19, anticipating that just to start the school year, the district will need about 40,000 disposable face masks, 500 clear masks and 100 face shields.

The district also is looking at purchasing ultraviolet-light cleaning machines, chemical-based cleaning machines and hand sanitizer. Signage will also be put up in the buildings, Saunders said.

The cost will be substantial, he stressed, as UV machines, for example, cost about $5,000 each. The district has about $39,000 from the state for items related to COVID-19, but he said it “won’t put a dent” in what the district needs to spend.

Vice President Brian Cherry acknowledged the challenges that face the district.

“This is going to (be) a crazy year,” Cherry said. “Getting started healthy is going to be key. The time commitment, the money commitment, the organization commitment is just going to be intense.”

Christie Mastric can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is cbleck@miningjournal.net

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