Schoolcraft board addresses COVID-19 concerns

By Travis Smola

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic was a hot topic at the Schoolcraft board of education’s January meeting, where multiple teachers weighed in their opinions of the current situation.

The board approved a resolution that will mostly “stay the course” on what the district was already doing to address the pandemic. The elementary school is continuing a five-day-a-week a.m. and p.m. schedule.

The district recently had a positive case with a teacher. Board President Jennifer Gottschalk confirmed quarantine procedures and contact tracing had already been done and the schedule for the elementary will remain unchanged.

For the high school and middle school, they will continue to offer an SCS Online and KVIC (KRESA Virtual and Innovative Collaborative) instruction model option. However, they have since transitioned out of a full hybrid model to a face-to-face Tuesday through Friday full day schedule effective Jan. 25. Mondays will be left for teachers to work with online classes.

The board heard concerns from teachers at all three schools in open comment time prior to their decision. Most of the teachers thanked the board for its efforts during a trying school year and said they wanted to get back to face-to-face. But they were also concerned about class sizes and moving too quickly to return.

High school English teacher Kimberlee Klocke said contact tracing had been effective early on, but she had concerns about teachers having to use unpaid leave if quarantining more than once. She is also worried full classrooms could make social distancing more difficult.

“It concerns me that we could now end up with higher amounts of students and staff needing to go into quarantine,” Klocke said. “But we also need to consider what that could do for athletics and also our extracurricular activities.”

Fifth grade teacher Sheryl Peterson said the plan they agreed to before winter break was changed upon their return. She also expressed concerns about rushing students back before nailing down some more details.

“We’re not against moving towards a plan to bring our students back to school more,” Peterson said. “And maybe this is a good blueprint that’s been developed. But we haven’t had time to really hash it out.”

Fourth grade teacher and Kristin Caroselli , president of the Schoolcraft Education Association, said the teachers and district had agreed on some non-negotiable conditions that were not fully being honored after they returned from break, mainly dealing with social distancing concerns.

“We’re not surprised by this, we know this is coming and we want it to be better,” Caroselli said. “We want to be back in school. But we don’t want to be back in school in an environment that feels unsafe.”

Other concerns were raised about the second strain of the virus, how quickly teachers could get the vaccine, over-packed special education classes and concerns about bullying due to mask wearing.

Superintendent Rusty Stitt responded by thanking everyone for their concerns, noting that 2020 and COVID-19 have been the biggest challenge of his career.

“I wouldn’t wish this on anybody,” Stitt said.

Stitt praised the staff for its dedication and passion for the job and said that he’s been meeting with other superintendents weekly to discuss the issues at hand. He said Schoolcraft’s decision to go back is in line with other districts in the county. He noted that while they were moving forward with this plan, things were not “set in stone” and could change if it didn’t feel right.

New Trustee Adam Haley inquired into what a “worst-case scenario” would be for numbers of students and distances between them in classrooms at the middle school. Middle School Principal Dave Powers said he’s met with with Facilities/Technology Director James Weiss and custodial staff and found it may be up to 19 in some classrooms. However, he believes it will be in excess of three feet of social distancing.

There’s another factor that may come into play. “We are expecting that there will be some students who will still choose to be full virtual,” Powers said. “That is going to reduce that number in any section.”

Powers said they have not had many issues with social distancing, even during lunch periods, and that they have had few problems with children wearing masks. Schoolcraft is going to be mandating mask use for now.

The board discussed hiring new staff for the middle and high school to help with the extra workload on teachers. The district is hiring at least two for the middle school. However, High School Principal Matthew Dailey says they don’t anticipate doing that in his building. The creative solution is to better utilize two substitutes for the rest of the year and to add the option for a seventh hour class before or after regular school hours. Teachers would get overage pay for teaching this hour and it would have smaller class sizes to avoid overcrowding in other parts of the day. They could also possibly have teachers start taking classes during their planning period if they so choose.

If the district does need to hire more staff, Stitt said they aren’t expecting any issues because they are expecting to receive more COVID-19 relief money from the state that will cover the costs.

Vice President Jason Walther said he’s had discussions with other districts who have had experiences similar to Schoolcraft’s, of isolated cases with no cases of transmission at school. He said his own discussions with the health department on the issue indicate most transmissions happen on personal and holiday time.

“In my mind, COVID’s not going away. Yeah, we have a vaccine coming, but we’re going to be dealing with this for a lot longer and we have to get back to some sense of normalcy as fast as we can,” Walther said.

Stitt noted that the board must reconfirm its COVID response plans every month no matter what because of the way the situation keeps changing. He said he may bring the board together at short notice to make decisions if the schedule needs to be changed because they’re falling behind in preparations. Stitt said he wants to stay with a four-day schedule for now because it allows teachers the time they need to also work virtually.

“I struggle right now personally with that five-day, just because we may have to pivot out of it,” Stitt said.

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