By Ralph Echtinaw
Things will be quite different when St. Louis area kids return to school in September, thanks to the coronavirus.
Aspects of the coming school year are coming into focus, but much remains in flux and depends on how successful we are in containing the spread of Covid-19.
It is hoped that students from kindergarten through the 12th grade will have the option of attending school in person or virtually via the internet. But K-5 students might be required to attend in person. “We are still waiting for further guidance from the State of Michigan to ensure we will be allowed to provide a virtual option for K-5,” said Superintendent Jennifer McKittrick via email. “If we are allowed to provides this option one will be available.”
“We will have a highly qualified teacher assigned to our virtual students who will provide lessons virtually,” McKittrick continued. “There will be attendance requirements and weekly virtual meetings. If a family opts for the virtual option we are asking for a minimum commitment for one marking period. This will be especially important at the high school level due to students needing to acquire credits.”
If you choose the virtual learning option for your children, certain things are required.
Chief among them is internet access. If you don’t have that your child can’t attend virtually. However, “in the event a family does not have access they can contact St. Louis Public Schools and we will assist them in obtaining connectivity,” McKittrick said.
“There will be a minimum amount of time for students to attend weekly virtual classes,” McKittrick said. “Hours will differ between grade levels/buildings). Attendance will be taken.”
There will be a minimum amount of hours per week to complete school work and assignments. Skills will be assessed and scored on a child’s report card. Demonstration of skills will be required to continue advancing.
“A lot of parental support and guidance will be needed, especially at the lower grade levels,” McKittrick said. Teachers will check in with students/parents multiple times a week to discuss student progress.”
Children in school virtually will follow the same curriculum as children attending in person.
“It is important for our students to stay connected to St. Louis Public Schools regardless of what learning platform they choose,” McKittrick said. “Students will still be able to participate in extracurriculars and other events offered throughout the school year, even if enrolled virtually.”
Wood shop teacher Phil Maxwell, along with Gary Stangelwicz and Scott Dennison, are building plexiglass stands, and the district has already spent $15,000 on them.
“We have plexiglass shields on main office counters, administrators desk, teachers desk,” McKittrick said. “We are also creating plexiglass shields for elementary classrooms in order to have shields on tables where teachers can still work one-on-one or in small groups with students.”
Students will still each lunch at school, but lunch periods will be staggered to avoid having a lot of students in the cafeteria at one time. High school students might not be allowed to leave the campus for lunch. “Open campus lunch at the high school is still under discussion,” McKittrick said.
The elementary school recess areas will be divided into zones, with groups of students rotating between zones.
“We will be working to educate our students on social distancing guidelines,” McKittrick said. “Even though students are in cohorts and will be able to be in the playground together, it is important we teach our students to maintain social distancing. We will implement many safety requirements and recommendations in order to provide the safest environment for our staff and students.”
Students in kindergarten through the fifth grade must wear masks on the bus and sit with their siblings and/or other members of their households. “Once we get them into a classroom they won’t have to put a mask on until they go home,” McKittrick told the school board.
Middle school and high school students won’t have it so easy. “Mask will be required throughout the school day for 6-12 grade students,” McKittrick said. “During lunchtime students will be permitted to remove their masks in order to eat.”
Each school building will likely have a “sick room” where students showing symptoms will be placed until they can be taken home.
St. Louis schools are at “quite a disadvantage” because the district includes parts of Gratiot, Midland and Isabella counties. And each of them is in a different region created by the state government’s Safe Start Plan, McKittrick told the school board July 20.
“We have to find out the phases for all of those regions,” McKittrick said. “Whoever has the highest risk or the lowest phase is the plan we have to follow.” All three regions are at phase four now, but that could change. If one of them goes to phase three every student in the district has to attend school virtually.
Perhaps the most important thing for parents and students to keep in mind is that the situation is evolving. “We’re still very early in the process of figuring out what this world of virtual education is going to look like,” high school Principal Eric Huff told the school board. “What we did last spring was a great Band-Aid of the moment. But I anticipate and I am going to scream from the roof tops to our parents and students that what we did last spring is not going to resemble in hardly any way, shape, or form what we’re planning to do this fall.”
At the time he said that (July 20) Huff had several webinars coming up where he would learn what other districts are doing and may make changes to his own program accordingly. “I expect in the next two weeks things are going to change some more,” he said.
Although McKittrick likely faces the biggest challenge of her career in education, she got good news from her evaluation at the school board meeting.
Fifteen “components” were evaluated using the “School Advance Superintendent’s Evaluation.” The goal areas fell under leadership, system alignment, processes and capacity building. McKittrick received 3.885 out of 4.0 in these areas, giving her a “highly effective” rating.
“Congratulations, Ms. McKittrick,” said board President Jeff Baxter. “Very wonderful. Very nice.”
Student handbook changes
High school Principal Eric Huff covered the highlights for the school board. The biggest change is to the suspension policy for kids caught smoking, vaping or using eCigarettes.
Instead of getting a three-day suspension, students will get a four-day suspension unless they agree to enter a program of the Gratiot County Substance Abuse Coalition
that “evaluates risk of students to be repeat offenders and makes recommendations to their parents for additional treatment if necessary,” Huff said.
Huff believes this is a better way of helping students learn from their mistakes than a simple suspension is.
Huff has experience with the program from his time as athletics director in Alma schools and tested it on two St. Louis students who confessed to smoking during the last school year.
“We had two students that got in trouble for going out back, and we found some cigarette butts, and they quickly confessed after we told them we had cameras on them even though we didn’t. We tried this program out and we had one parent that said yes and one parent that said no. The parent and the student that said yes to the program we didn’t have any more issues with during the school year. And the parent and student that turned down the opportunity to have a reduction we continued to have other issues with that student.”
Athletics Director Bryan Anderson gave a report to the school board as well: “Failure to turn in school issued uniforms and equipment will result in the withholding of grades, credits, internet computer privileges and participation in graduation ceremonies,” he said. “Our attendance policy has changed. On game day any absence must be pre-approved by the athletics director. A doctor’s note will be required for students with excessive amount of excused absences.” There will be weekly eligibility checks. “We’re hoping to do this for the entire sports season,” he said, “whatever that looks like for 2020-21.”
Say goodbye to the following teachers who retired since the end of the last school year: Middle school teacher Gayle Janasik, Nikkari teachers Elizabeth Philson and Debra McLaughlin, Carrie Knause teachers Victoria Hammond and Merrilee Allen.
McKittrick said the retired teachers will not be immediately replaced. “We have absorbed those positions.”
Carrie Salladay was the only absent school board member on July 20.
The next school board meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 12, in the high school media center.