Vicksburg schools: More questions than answers

By Jef Rietsma

Editor’s Note: The Vicksburg school district by press time had published several options for reopening which depend on the trend of COVID-19 infections. They include all-virtual education and, if the trend of infections levels off and declines, giving parents and students a choice of virtual or in-person education. A draft chart of the options can be viewed at vicksburgcommunityschools.org. 

With more questions than answers, Vicksburg Community Schools Superintendent Keevin O’Neill in a mid-July board meeting said a clearer picture regarding back-to-school details should be available by the end of July.

During the July 13 meeting, O’Neill spent more than 10 minutes recapping the state of VCS. Additional information was provided during more than 20 minutes of audience questions and board responses following O’Neill’s update.

He restated the highest priority: the health and safety of the district’s students and staff.

“We’re not interested in opening up schools unless we know people will be safe,” he said. “No way would we ever want to put anyone in a situation where they didn’t feel safe or healthy.”

O’Neill made a number of references to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s 63-page MI Safe Schools Roadmap and the mandate that districts develop return-to-school plans. The district-created plans must take into account whether the state is in Phases 1 through 3, Phase 4 or Phase 5. A plan for each of those three levels is required.

He said the course of action the district took from April through the end of the academic year, where curriculum was administered online only, was an example of Phase 3.

“One of the big things that’s happening on the county level is what’s known as the Kalamazoo Virtual and Innovative Collaborative, and that is an online option for families that will choose their children to do their work 100 percent online and not come to school,” O’Neill said. “When we look at Phase 4, which we’re currently in, it allows for face-to-face instruction. That’s what we want to do and we want to make our plan robust as far as health and safety are concerned.”

He said Whitmer’s Roadmap includes options from required and strongly recommend, to recommended and considerations. He said the district will have to digest all options and figure out which will be applied under what circumstances.

Still, O’Neill sided with research that shows face-to-face instruction is most effective and anything less is just not as optimal. He remained optimistic that face-to-face instruction will be allowed.

O’Neill, beginning his third year as Vicksburg superintendent, said personal and collective responsibilities will be major components to the district’s back-to-school plan. Engaging all stakeholders, he noted, is paramount. Being flexible will be critical, too.

“We have to be nimble; we have to be able to pivot back and forth from plans,” he said, adding that a critical issue to come out of Whitmer’s Roadmap centers on masks. “I’m not going to lie, I’ve talked to parents who said ‘There’s no way I’m going to send my kid back to school if he has to wear a mask.’ We know that. We understand that. Everybody feels differently about this.”

O’Neill said at Phase 4, the state will require students and teachers in sixth through 12th grades to wear face covering, while elementary students will have to wear a mask in common areas. At Phase 5, masks are optional.

By the end of July, O’Neill expects the district will have on its website a draft of information related to each of the three phases, 1 through 3, Phase 4 and Phase 5. The district is soliciting feedback from all stakeholders in order to compile a final draft due to the state on or before Aug. 15.

“There’s lots and lots of little things that we’re going to look at every possible scenario, what ifs, possibly adding more lunches to every schedule to ensure that our cafeterias are safe, one-way lanes in hallways and walking in single file,” O’Neill said. “And we haven’t even got into athletics and extra-curriculars yet. Learning is number one right now and that’s what we’re going to focus on.”

In response to audience questions, O’Neill provided answers and clarification, noting that the district would provide only online learning if the region is in Phase 3. The Kalamazoo Virtual and Innovative Collaborative will be available only in Phases 4 or 5.

He also said cleaning protocols will be “robust” and could happen hourly, in some cases with student assistance.

“The protocols we’re going to have to look at in elementary rooms, we’re going to have to get rid of the reading carpet, we’ve got to get rid of all the fluff, we can’t have things shared,” he said. “We need to open up every classroom at every level so that we can space the best we can and then once we get all those protocols in place, then we may have to move some kids … there’s so many dominoes that are going to fall in place to make sure safety is number one and those are some of the things we’re going to have to do.”

In other action:

• O’Neill said the district is in a holding pattern as far as hiring or layoffs are concerned. The district is awaiting more information from the state regarding 2020-21 school-year funding.

• He noted that through online registration, the district has 263 students enrolled in kindergarten and pre-kindergarten for 2020-21.

• The board approved the services of Thrun Law Firm and auditor Plante Moran for 2020-21.

• Board members authorized bids for the following construction-related projects: flooring removal and abatement, $8,682; acoustical ceilings, $29,862; resilient floor coverings, $84,450; interior painting, $5,310; interior lighting, $18,022; tennis court resurfacing and repairs, $112,995; and stadium fencing and concrete repairs, $39,295.

• Bids for dairy and bakery were awarded to Country Fresh, $46,590, and Aunt Millie’s, $6,470.

• A request by Ravenna Kahler, Sunset Lake Elementary and Vicksburg High School band teacher, for 12 weeks leave starting Aug. 31 was granted.

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