By Carla Bumstead, Editor
— The Eaton Rapids Public Schools are facing a monumental challenge as they plan for the start of the 2020-2021 school year. The question of how, when and where students will receive instruction in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic is uppermost on the minds of administrators and staff. Likewise, students and their parents are wondering how things will be once school resumes on Aug. 31.
District Superintendent Bill DeFrance is facing the challenge with his usual approach of trying to keep “what is best for the kids” at the forefront of all considerations.
“It’s like a teeter-totter,” he said, in an interview on Tuesday, July 7. “It’s a delicate balance of the kids’ health and safety while still making sure they make academic progress.
“I tend to err on the side of health and safety, because it they aren’t healthy and safe there is not going to be any opportunity for them to learn.”
To successfully accomplish this delicate balance, DeFrance stressed it will take a major partnership between district staff and parents, daycare providers and other caregivers.
The final decision as to exactly how and where kids will return to ERPS in the fall has not yet been made. But a “roadmap” for the return to school, called the “MI Safe Schools Return to School Roadmap” was issued by the state on June 30. It is intended to “provide the necessary guidance, support and clarity needed by local school authorities to bring Michigan students safely back to school for in-person instruction for the 2020-2021 school year.” The roadmap includes many specific requirements and recommendations for schools to follow and implement, as related to COVID-19.
A summary of the roadmap was sent to all district parents on July 2, which included details about the use of personal protective equipment, facial coverings and personal hygiene practices. Of particular note, is the requirement that face masks be worn by all students and staff in most situations. DeFrance said the only exception is to be for very young students when they are inside their own classroom.
The full roadmap can be found on the state’s website, at Michigan.gov/coronavirus. The state is categorizing all COVID-19 risk levels, and those risk-level determinations will be crucial when it comes to making return-to-school decisions. It should be noted that, as of July 8, the entire Lansing area, including Eaton County, was listed as “high risk.”
In one important decision, DeFrance has appointed former high school principal Dave Johnson as the district’s “return to school coordinator.” Johnson has remained active with the district since he retired as principal.
Johnson, who said he is having a much busier summer than he expected six months ago, said he sees his role primarily as that of a facilitator. He said he has taken a close look at the state’s current guidelines and sees a number of areas of concern.
“I have been looking at what we should be planning for as outlined in the roadmap,” Johnson said. “We have some real challenges ahead of us, as will all schools, as we prepare to implement the requirements identified in the roadmap.”
He explained there are still many unknowns, including the risk level Eaton County will be facing come the end of August.
“At this moment, we are trying to study the requirements and evaluate our resources. The roadmap is helpful as far as clarity and expectations we need to have for parents, teachers and students.”
Johnson stressed that, in order to achieve a successful return to school, parents will need to play a huge role.
“We are calling it a ‘parent school partnership,’ and it will be absolutely critical as we move forward,” he said.
The roadmap calls for “screening” of students prior to their entry into a school building. But as Johnson points out, it would be logistically impossible for district staff to individually screen each of the district’s approximately 2,300 students as they arrive each day.
“Obviously, our parents are going to have to play a critical role,” Johnson said. “They are going to need to be taking temperatures and asking all the essential questions to their kids about any symptoms they may be having.”
The district does understand it will need to be paying close attention to students’ health once they return to class, but parents will be the “first line of defense.”
“It is not going to be a question of risk prevention; it is going to be risk reduction,” Johnson said.
As the district is clearly aware of how important parental involvement will be, a survey was sent out to all parents on Monday, July 6. The survey asks parents to rate the importance of numerous considerations — including their children’ health and safety, academic progress, social interaction and extra-curricular activities. Parents were also presented with four possible options as far as returning to school in the fall:
Option 1: A two-group, two-day combination of remote learning and in-class instruction.
Option 2: In-person learning for K-5 and all-remote learning for everyone else.
Option 3: In-person learning Monday-Thursday and all-remote on Friday.
Option 4: Completely remote learning.
It should be noted that any parent who wishes to have their student working remotely will be allowed to do so.
Parent response to the survey was astounding, as over 900 responses came back in less than 24 hours.
“That clearly shows that our parents are extremely interested in the question of what our return to school will look like,” DeFrance said. “And we need them to be, because they are going to have to play such a huge role in keeping everyone as safe and healthy as possible.”
DeFrance said an initial look at the results, in terms of which option was most-favored, showed both Option 3 and Option 1 getting the most votes thus far. As of July 8, Option 3 seemed to be favored by most, but none of the options had a majority. Parents still have time to complete the survey.
Johnson said he believes the Eaton Rapids community as a whole is up to the return to school challenge.
“We are truly blessed in this community to have always had a lot of support from our parents,” he said. “We have a robust medical presence in our community, and we are blessed with excellent teachers and staff. I know they will be committed to doing all they can when it comes to us returning to school in the safest environment possible.”
But he added it is important to keep in mind the serious and ever-changing nature of the virus situation itself.
“We are not in control, and we are reacting to a virus that kills.”
For more information on the ERPS response to COVID-19 and the most up-to-date return to school information, visit the website at erpsk12.org. The district also maintains an active Facebook page.
As shown here at a recent ERPS parent “pick up day,” face masks will be required wearing for students and staff when school resumes in the fall.