Many West Michigan school districts are returning to school after spring break this Monday.
For students at Muskegon Heights Public School Academy Systems, that means staying home as the district returns to virtual learning for two weeks.
"Prior to the governor's recommendations, there was discussion that we were looking at a week-long closing," said Superintendent Rane' Garcia. "Just to kind of watch how things are. We know that from our perspective, it's going to be better to be safe than sorry."
Friday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer urged high schools to shift to virtual learning for two weeks, as well as youth sports suspend games and practices, to fight the surge in COVID-19 in the state.
Meanwhile, Grand Rapids Public Schools already adjusted their learning plans prior to spring break. The district is planning to shift to a four-days-a-week in classroom hybrid model, with Wednesdays virtual. It is instead pushing that switch off another week, to April 19. In the meantime, students are sticking to their current two-days-a-week in the classroom, rotating groups of students, with everyone virtual Wednesdays.
Across Kent County, drive-thru testing sites were set up at schools primarily to test those returning from spring break vacations. Kenowa Hills set up their own testing site. Kent Intermediate School District (KISD) partnered with schools across the county for their testing Saturday through Monday.
KISD administered 4,291 COVID-19 tests during the effort.
"We would like to thank the thousands of families who chose to be tested over the weekend before returning to school," said Ron Koehler, Kent ISD Superintendent. "Their desire to be tested made it possible for schools to open safely today all across Kent ISD. We are committed to doing whatever we can to maintain a safe learning environment for students and staff alike."
Meanwhile, Godfrey-Lee Public Schools was one of the majority of school districts that did not alter their current learning plans post-spring break. However, for Superintendent Kevin Polston, that does not mean the district is not taking student and staff safety lightly.
"What the governor is asking school leaders to do is make decisions that are reflective of the conditions their community, and make the best decision possible," said Polston. "And for us at Godfrey-Lee, that meant continuing with our plan."
That plan includes wearing masks, distancing, screening for symptoms daily, COVID-19 testing on site in partnership with the health department and the continuing vaccination efforts for staff and older students. Polston said he believes the governor suggested high schools return to virtual learning specifically, because those older students are more mobile in their school and in the community. However, Godfrey-Lee has reduced the number of periods high schoolers have during a day, so they are in contact with far fewer students every day.
While the district is continuing their learning plans, Polston said they are mindful of conditions, and that things could change.
"Throughout the pandemic, what we've seen is transmission rate in the classroom, in the controlled environment, has been very low," said Polston. "And our students, our families and our educators know that in-person learning is the best option for those that want it. So, we've continued to offer that in-person, while being mindful that the variants do change things and we have to keep an eye on the data. Our decisions need to be evaluated, and reevaluated, as new data emerges."
From November to January, the district did need to pause in-person learning for some time at the secondary level. That was due to numerous staff in quarantine due to positive tests or exposure to COVID-19. Now, as many of the staff are vaccinated, Polston said that is not an issue.
"The vaccine is our path forward to getting every child back to school and keep our community safe," said Polston. "And that is critical for us to make sure that every member who's eligible of our community gets a vaccine as soon as possible."
When the students return to the classroom in two weeks at Muskegon Heights, Garcia said they will have new masks waiting for them. These are made to fit the children's smaller faces better. However, virtual learning is not new for many in the district. Only around one-third of the students chose in-person instruction this semester.
"There's a large disproportionality when it comes to deaths in the black community," said Garcia of COVID-19. "And that can't be ignored. That has to be dug into more. That's going to take much more than an educational system to dig into that. It's a full combination of multiple factors. So, while as long as that's going on, I believe we just need to be a little bit more cautious."
Polston had a similar sentiment. He said many of the district's students are very cognizant of COVID-19 precautions.
"Because COVID has hit this community harder, and many of them have more of a personal connection with those that have either had symptoms of COVID, or unfortunately, lost a loved one to COVID," said Polston. "And so, they understand the reality of this virus and their role to keep our community safe."
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