Schools Prepare to Welcome Back Students

It’s been more than five months since students graced the halls of local school buildings. However, that changes tomorrow, August 19th, when St. Patrick School welcomes back students in kindergarten through 8th grade for their first day of school. Preschool and developmental kindergarten students return next week.

Meanwhile, Lowell Area Schools prepares to kick-off its school year with a virtual connection day on Tuesday, August 25th. After that, in-person learning will commence on a hybrid schedule for at least three weeks. Families can also choose an entirely virtual learning option for the 2020-2021 school year.

Regardless of their school choice, students can expect changes to their daily routines as new policies and procedures have been enacted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

St. Patrick School: Seeking a Return to Normalcy

At St. Patrick School, students will be returning for in-person instruction. The school followed the MI Safe Schools Return to School Roadmap as well as guidance from the Diocese of Grand Rapids in creating its education plan for the upcoming year.

“Our goal is to keep everything as normal as possible for students while still meeting state requirements,” principal Scott Czarnopys says.

That means students in grades K-5 will wear masks in the hallways and on the bus while students in grades 6-8 will also wear them in the classroom. The school, which does not have a hot lunch program, is having students eat in their classrooms, and there will be staggered recess times to minimize contact between classes.

Regular all-school activities such as daily prayer and weekly Mass will also be adjusted with prayers being said over the intercom in the morning and classes taking part in smaller church services throughout the week.

Lowell Area Schools: Offering Two Learning Options

Families enrolled in Lowell Area Schools have two options for the upcoming year: in-person learning that will start with a hybrid schedule and fully online virtual learning.

As of last Friday, approximately 12% of families had selected the virtual option, according to interim superintendent Nate Fowler. That’s out of the 80% of families who have already made their selection for the upcoming year. The remaining families are being contacted by school staff to determine their choice.

Originally, the district had planned to begin the year with all in-person students being in the classroom for instruction five days a week. However, that was adjusted to a hybrid schedule for all students through September 11, 2020. At that time, grades K-5 may return to the classroom full-time while students in grades 6-12 will continue on a hybrid schedule until September 25th.

“We felt like we needed a little more time to plan and test our procedures,” Fowler explains. Students returning to in-person learning will be split into two groups, red and white, according to their last name. The groups will attend school in person on alternate days. On the other days, they will remain home and independently complete assignments from their teacher.

“Our concept is that we’re not going to be delivering new [material] on the days they are at home,” Fowler says. Instead, teachers might assign a review of the previous day’s work or possibly provide a preview of an upcoming lesson.

In mid-September, the district tentatively plans to start bringing in-person students back to the classroom on a full-time basis. However, a final decision on when and how that happens will depend on a variety of factors including COVID-19 numbers in Kent and Ionia Counties.

Students enrolled in the virtual option will receive all their education remotely. At the secondary level, the district is using the Odysseyware learning platform. Students will follow the Odysseyware curriculum with support and guidance of Lowell Area Schools teachers. While Odysseyware is not set up to teach AP level courses, Fowler says the district has worked out a way for advanced students to take these college-level classes through Michigan Virtual High School.

In the elementary grades, students will follow a curriculum created by Lowell teachers using the University of Michigan Roadmaps as a guide. The Roadmaps program offers teachers a set of free, customizable learning tools and templates. Virtual learning at this level will be similar to what was offered during the spring semester but will be more structured and more rigorous.

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Buses, Masks and More

Making curriculum decisions has been only one part of getting ready for students at Lowell Area Schools. Administrators have also been grappling with other issues such as how to deliver lunches, arrange recesses and route buses.

“I don’t think we’re ever going to be able to have six feet of separation in our schools at all times,” Fowler says. Six feet is the recommended distance between people to minimize the transmission of COVID-19.

Since the six feet of separation may not always be possible, the district is looking at other ways to keep students safe. For instance, while the state only requires masks in classrooms for students in grades 6-12, Lowell Area Schools will have students in grades K-12 wear masks in the classroom. This decision was made based on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Kent County Health Department. Fowler says it’s his understanding that other public school systems in the county are also requiring masks in lower elementary grades based on these recommendations.

Meanwhile, bus routes are being reworked from scratch, and families should hear within the week about their pick-up and drop-off times. What’s more, parents need to be aware that buildings won’t be open early as they have been in the past. Playgrounds are being split into zones for different classes during recess, and some hallways and stairways in the high school may be adjusted for one-way traffic.

As for Chromebooks for virtual learners, the district was able to place a large order thanks to the passage of the sinking fund proposal on the August 4th ballot. However, due to a number of factors, an order that would normally take four weeks to fill now has a 12 to 20-week turnaround. As Chromebooks arrive, Fowler says priority will go first to virtual learners but eventually all students in grades 6-12 will be issued their own device.

Grateful for a Supportive Community

Fowler, who took over the district’s top spot at the start of the month, says the amount of grace and understanding shown by parents and community members has been deeply appreciated. He is also extremely grateful to voters for passing the sinking fund proposal, especially considering the uncertainty surrounding state funding this year. The sinking fund allows the district to pay for needed building, security and technology upgrades without dipping into the general fund.

Still, the interim superintendent acknowledges the past few months have been frustrating as families wait for the details of the new school year. “We wish we’d had answers sooner,” Fowler says. However, school staff has been working hard to create a back-to-school plan that will meet the diverse needs of students as well as adhere to health and safety recommendations.

Next week, the doors will open to welcome some students back to district schools while other families will fire up their computers at home to start a new year of learning. Either way, the 2020-2021 school year promises to be one that students, staff and parents will never forget.

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