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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Two days in school, three at home? That’s the plan in one Michigan district.

classroom

Students in the West Bloomfield School District will only return to school two days a week in the fall to ensure social distancing, possibly foreshadowing a classroom/kitchen table learning hybrid in schools across Michigan.

West Bloomfield is believed to be the first school system in the state to unveil its vision for what education will look like in September when students return to campus amid uncertainty about the coronavirus. While the continued, partial reliance on homebound learning may be shocking to parents, the guidelines are similar to some preliminary plans being discussed by school officials around the state.

“We would prefer back to normal, but this plan assumes that is not the case,” West Bloomfield Superintendent Gerald Hill told Bridge Tuesday.

Under the plan submitted to families for comment this week, West Bloomfield students in kindergarten through 12th grade will attend school two days a week — half of students in each grade on Monday and Tuesday, and the other half Thursday and Friday. On Wednesdays, school staff will “deep clean” school buildings.

On the three days students are not in school buildings, they will have online assignments. Hill estimated students will have a few hours of online school work in the morning, and a few more in the afternoon.

The district said it hopes to provide child care services for families who want it on days their children are not in classrooms. But that child care plan is predicated on West Bloomfield obtaining federal grants. And even then, families likely would have to pick up part of the cost of care, Hill said.

Splitting the number of students in classrooms means that, for example, a classroom with an enrollment of 24 would have 12 students in class at one time, allowing the classrooms to be set up for social-distancing, Hill said.

Hill said the district hopes to provide coronavirus testing for students entering classrooms on a regular basis. 

“Some European countries are testing (students) several times a week,” Hill said.

If there is a second wave of coronavirus infections, the district may close school buildings again and return to fully-remote learning like schools across the state are doing now.

Families who aren’t comfortable having their children return to school in the fall — which will be long before a coronavirus vaccine is expected to be developed and available — will have the option of full homebound learning.

Last week, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced the creation of a task force to make recommendations on how to safely reopen schools this summer or fall. The 20-person panel, made up of parents, teachers, administrators and health officials, “will use a data-informed and science-based approach with input from epidemiologists to determine if, when and how students can return to school this fall and what that will look like,” Whitmer said in a statement.

Hill said West Bloomfield will consider the task force’s recommendations when they are released. “We can modify our plan as we go,” he said, “but we didn’t feel we had the luxury of waiting for those recommendations.

“The clock is ticking. Parents are making plans. The problem is, we’re making plans for a scenario we don’t know what will be, and what our resources will be.”

Hill said the district needs to unveil plans now so “families and staff have an opportunity for dialogue” about the classroom-online learning model.

“We converted to totally remote learning three days in March,” when Whitmer ordered public and private K-12 school buildings closed to slow the spread of the potentially deadly virus. For the remainder of the school year, which ends in June, schools across the state are offering a mix of online learning and printed assignments.

“What we’re doing now is crisis education,” Hill said. By unveiling plans more than three months before the start of the next school year, West Bloomfield families and teachers will have more time to prepare, Hill said.

Ronda Cooper, the parent of a student who will be a fifth-grader this fall in West Bloomfield, said she isn’t happy with the plan. 

“My first reaction when I saw the plan was, ‘Holy crap!’” Cooper said. “What’s going to happen if (her son) is at home and I have to go to work for the entire day? There needs to be a little more consistency in the schedule.”

While West Bloomfield is the first district to announce a fall plan that involves remote learning, it may not be the last. 

Education officials who spoke to Bridge over the past few weeks regarding fall plans said schools are planning for multiple scenarios, from traditional school with facemasks and extra cleaning, to hybrid plans like West Bloomfield unveiled that limit the number of students in school buildings at any one time.

Alternating school attendance days is one plan being discussed; another is having half of students attend school in mornings, and half in afternoons.

Any plan in which students aren’t in classrooms five days a week has a huge economic impact.

“One of the components of reigniting the economy is having kids in school,” said Randy Liepa, superintendent of Wayne Intermediate School District. “Imagine if you do staggered start times (for different grades or classroom sections), and high school kids have times different from elementary. Think of the babysitting and child care issues.”

And what do parents do who need to return to full-time work if their children are only in school a few days a week, Liepa asked. “It’s going to be very difficult if there is limited access to schools.”

Scott Menzel, superintendent of Washtenaw Intermediate Schools, said he questions how well social distancing can work in schools even with smaller classes. 

“Try putting five kindergarteners in a room and try to make them socially distance,” Menzel said.

West Bloomfield’s Hill acknowledged his district is likely the first to announce fall plans, but from conversations he’s had with other superintendents, he said others are likely to follow soon. 

“I’d look for most of them to have plans by early June, and blending (of in-person and online learning) is going to be fairly standard.”

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