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RETURNING TO SCHOOL: Local districts outline plans

MARQUETTE — The COVID-19 pandemic is not over, so how the start of the 2020-21 school year — and the congregations of students it brings — will be handled is of concern to many people.

Local school districts, though, are forming return-to-school plans.

Marquette Area Public Schools

The MAPS Board of Education now has a plan in place, which it discussed at Wednesday’s virtual board meeting.

“The majority of everything I’ve heard is that our community wants a connection to Marquette Area Public Schools teachers,” Superintendent Bill Saunders said.

That connection could be in a nontraditional form.

“For those people who want to be online, they don’t view this is as necessarily a permanent move for their family,” Saunders said.

He said if the district wants to offer face-to-face education, it has to be “seamless.”

“We want folks to be able to be online and potentially come back to us, whether that be after a month or nine weeks,” Saunders said, “or depending on what the decision is that’s driving that –health, safety, waiting for a vaccine, whatever that is — a lot of families anticipate coming back at some point. So we want those online students to be in the same place as the students that are face to face.”

One possibility for the 2020-21 school year would be face-to-face instruction five days a week, he said.

Online options, Saunders noted, include 100% virtual learning and a combination of virtual and face-to-face instruction, which could include attending school daily just for core classes or coming to school every other week.

“We actually are probably one of the few districts that would say you don’t have to be 100% virtual,” Saunders said. “We’ll allow some form of hybrid options for our parents and for our students.”

Because online options will require extra work for teachers, the board on Wednesday authorized stipends in an agreement with the Marquette Area Education Association for working with students enrolled in various MAPS online academies.

Saunders also discussed personal protection equipment the school district will provide, with 40,000 disposable masks already purchased. Available to teachers will be reusable regular cloth masks with clear shields so hearing-impaired students can read lips or see facial expressions.

Other PPE includes hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes, among other products.

The building interiors also will have a different look.

“Classrooms are going to be barren,” Saunders said. “You’re not going to be able to leave books and things like that out.”

Whatever their appearance, the MAPS educational situation probably will be fluid.

“Even if we went online in a month (that) doesn’t mean that at some point in time we’re not allowed to come back to face-to-face either,” Saunders said.

Region 8, which encompasses the Upper Peninsula, is now in phase five of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s MI Safe Start Plan. Phase five is considered “containing” — as opposed to phase six, which is considered “post-pandemic” — and allows live K-12 and higher education instruction.

The MAPS plan includes various tiers. The protocol for tier four — when the region is in phase four or five with in-person instruction — includes having “containment stations” for people who are sick, with a 14-day quarantine for individuals who are symptomatic.

Each building will have an identified and trained staff person to serve as a quarantine officer whose duties will take precedence over other types of responsibilities, Saunders said.

Saunders said the school district will encourage self-transportation to reduce the risk of students catching the coronavirus on buses.

Wearing masks and social distancing also will be enforced in the buildings.

Efforts will be made, with no guarantee, to space desks 6 feet apart during phase five, Saunders said.

He cautioned that social distancing might not be naturally attained through the attrition of students into the online offerings.

“So, until we really know how many choose online, we don’t know what our social distancing could potentially look like,” Saunders said.

However, he stressed safety measures must be followed in the buildings.

That could be a challenge. Saunders acknowledged high school students aren’t used to such a controlled environment.

“There will be a process of retraining students,” he said. “This is what we have to do.”

There could be a lot at stake if face-to-face instruction is to largely occur.

“They wanted to come back face to face,” Saunders said. “If they’re not willing to work with us, they’re jeopardizing that for themselves and for everybody around them, and that has to be a strong message that we get out.”

The MAPS school year begins on Sept. 8.

NICE Community Schools

Superintendent Bryan DeAugustine recently sent a letter to students, parents and guardians in the district regarding the district’s return to school.

“I know I do not need to elaborate on the strange times in which we live,” DeAugustine wrote. “I truly believe if we work together, we can make it through these challenges and return to normal operations one day.”

Until that day comes, though, the district has a few obstacles to clear.

DeAugustine said that barring new directives from the state, schools in the district will open for in-person learning beginning Sept. 1. This includes school bus transportation services. The Patriot Online Academy also is available for interested students beginning Sept. 1.

The district, according to DeAugustine, can help parents with hard-copy and electronic correspondence learning, with those options available starting Sept. 9.

Students in pre-K through 12th grade, as well as all employees, will be required to wear masks while indoors, including in buses, classrooms and hallways. There will be breaks throughout the day for students and staff to remove their masks.

“We know required mask use is not universally popular,” DeAugustine said. “Mask use will, however, be part of our efforts to keep our students and staff safe and healthy.”

Mask exceptions, though, will be made for those with a written excuse from a licensed doctor.

The district will provide “an abundance” of soap, hand sanitizer and other personal care items for staff and students, he said. Every common area will be routinely cleaned throughout the day and custodial hours will be changed to have more staff available for immediate cleaning duties during the school day.

The district is hiring an additional temporary nurse to start the school year so there will be two full-time nurses on campus each day. If a student has a fever of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher or is sick in any way, that student is to stay home. However, if a student becomes ill at school, the nurses will handle the situation and get in touch immediately with a parent or guardian to follow all Marquette County Health Department protocols.

If a student or staff member tests positive, parents and guardians should expect a partial or complete building- and/or district-wide shutdown for a quarantine period of up to 14 days.

Ishpeming Public Schools

“Our goal is to teach students face-to-face as much as possible, five days a week,” IPS Superintendent Carrie Meyer said in an email. “Our district will do so while practicing strict safety guidelines at all times.”

While the area is in phase five of the MI Safe Start Plan, students and staff will wear masks 100% of the time, which includes classrooms, hallways, the office, bathrooms, the commons area, cafeteria, gymnasium, playground and buses.

Exceptions include: students in music, chorus or band, providing students are able to socially distance; students who are outside for a class or recess; students in preschool programs who are 3 and 4 years of age while they are in the classroom; students or staff who are medically unable to tolerate a face covering; staff and students eating; and students or staff who are incapacitated or unable to remove the facial covering without assistance.

Grades will have staggered lunch time releases, with lunches prepared and boxed ahead of time.

No indoor school assemblies will be held with an outside presenter. Indoor assemblies may take place with in-house personnel, keeping grades and cohorts separated.

Outdoor spectator events will be allowed but are limited to 250 people with use of facial masks and social distancing between families. All school field trips will be suspended.

Hygiene practices will involve a variety of protocols, including each classroom being supplied with hand-sanitizing stations, cleaning supplies to use between classes and towels. Computers will be cleaned after each use, and the sharing of personal items or supplies will be limited.

Staff or students who develop a fever, become ill or have symptoms of COVID-19 will be sent home. Positive cases could result in a class and/or building moving to 100% distance learning for two to 14 days, based on the recommendation from the Marquette County Health Department. School begins on Aug. 31 for IPS.

Negaunee Public Schools

“We feel face-to-face instruction is the best way we can deliver information to our students,” Superintendent Dan Skewis said in an email. “Our plan is the safest plan we could incorporate to have students back in school.”

School begins on Sept. 1.

While the U.P. is in phase five of the Michigan Safe Start Plan, the NPS plan is to require face masks for staff, students in pre-K through 12th grade, staff and bus drivers during transportation. Masks must always be worn in hallways and common areas except for meals, and in classrooms.

The district will offer supplies to support healthy hygiene behaviors and custodial staff will frequently and systematically check and refill soap and hand sanitizer dispensers.

Hygiene efforts include limiting the use of classroom materials to small groups and disinfecting between uses, or providing enough supplies for individual student use.

Education in these practices will be a priority, and NPS staff will teach students how to properly wash hands with soap and water as well as how to cough and sneeze into their elbows or cover with a tissue.

NPS will try to maintain the social distancing protocol of 6 feet in classrooms, and in classrooms where large tables are used, students will be spaced apart as far as possible. Additionally, teaching staff will arrange all desks so they face toward the front of the classroom. Teachers will encourage the flow of foot traffic to go in only one direction if possible.

Students who become ill with COVID-19 symptoms will be placed in a quarantine area until they can be picked up. Students sent home will be kept there until they have tested negative or have completely recovered, according to standards from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Gwinn Area Community Schools

The GACS’ Return to Learn Plan was created by a group of stakeholders, including parents, teachers, hourly staff, board of education members and administration.

“I know we will work together as a team to ensure the best education for your child in the safest possible ways,” Superintendent Sandy Petrovich wrote in a letter to parents and guardians.

A return to in-person learning is available for GACS students, with the school year beginning on Aug. 31. Petrovich pointed out that if the U.P. moves back to phase four, in-person learning still would take place. But if the U.P. moves to phase one, two or three, full-time online learning would return.

The school district is not providing a split option of some days at school and some days at home.

“Some families have indicated they are interested in an online option for school, even when we are all scheduled for in-person learning,” Petrovich said. “We are still in conversation with our teachers regarding how this online option will work for our students, whether provided through our teachers or through an online vendor.”

If a vendor is provided, she said students will be locked into the learning mode choice for the term, which would be a semester at all grade levels.

A face covering will be required for all students and staff members in the schools, and social distancing will be accomplished as much as possible through arranging desks in one direction and spacing them apart. Secondary classrooms might be assigned a different space for instruction, pending class size.

Since students will not be allowed to share supplies, they will need their own materials, although extra supplies will be available at the schools for students in need.

Shared surfaces will be sanitized during the day, and classrooms and common areas will be sanitized and deep-cleaned each night.

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

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