COVID concerns at Vicksburg school board meeting

By Jef Rietsma

County health departments, not school districts, are responsible for declaring outbreaks of diseases, Vicksburg Supt. Keevin O’Neill told board members and the mother of a Tobey Elementary student who tested positive for COVID-19.

He defended the district’s transparency about the spread of the disease within the district.

Erin Hoekstra at the board’s April 12 meeting said O’Neill hadn’t been forthright when he neglected to mention students at her child’s K-5 school who tested positive for the disease. O’Neill in the email she cited had written that “the high school setting has proven to be safe, as we have no evidence of any outbreaks or person-to-person spread in the school.”

“Although your clever wording specifically referenced the high school, you conveniently made no reference to Tobey Elementary or the middle school,” said Hoekstra, herself a teacher. Her third grade son tested positive March 19. She said parents deserved to know of the classroom situation and that it was, in her opinion, a bona fide outbreak.

O’Neill said the declaration of an outbreak is not theirs to make. Such a declaration, he said, is made by county health officials, who report to state health officials.

The school district’s website has listed each instance of students or staff member testing positive. No names are used, the school and number of persons who tested positive is shown in a letter, signed by O’Neill. In most letters, a single student or staff member is reported. In a few, two students in a building have tested positive. The site says 33 students or staff members tested positive in April by late in the month. Another 30 tested positive in March. The site is at vicksburgschools.org/covid-19-information.

At Tobey, six students and two staff members tested positive in March. Letters posted on March 9 and 12 referred to staff members. One Tobey student tested positive in letters issued March 16, 17, 26 and 29, and two students on March 22.

A positive test resulted in contact tracing. But O’Neill said no tracing was conducted in cases where a student hadn’t been in school for several days prior to the test.

“We were transparent about every case the minute the staff member tested positive,” O’Neill said. “We immediately quarantined the entire class and as those cases came out, we notified every family in this district about those cases.”

“We’ve been transparent about every case in our schools, including providing a notification every time we have a positive case, which isn’t even required,” O’Neill said. “We try to go above and beyond to make sure every family knows every time we do have a case. We’re always going to be transparent. Always.”

In an interview after the meeting, O’Neill said his comments cited by Hoekstra had been specific and about the high school.

“The district prides itself on transparency and has worked hard to notify parents about every case.  Furthermore, all Tobey third grade families were notified of the additional student cases on March 18th.”

“In fact, Tobey Elementary principal Mike Barwegen emailed Mrs. Hoekstra specifically on March 22,” he added. “This was the first instance of apparent person-to-person transmission, which would meet the definition of an outbreak, that the school district is aware of. It is our understanding that the designation of ‘outbreak’ is determined and communicated to the state by the health department as explained at the April Board of Education meeting.”

“Importantly, all of the required steps and procedures were followed by Tobey Elementary staff and district administration.  While it is unfortunate that students appear to have been infected at school, the fact that these infections occurred after the students were quarantined offers evidence that the procedures worked effectively and exactly as they were designed.  All of these cases were reported to the health department and parents even though they occurred after the students had been quarantined at home for several days,” O’Neill continued.  

County health director Jim Rutherford acknowledged that outbreaks happen, “when two or more than two individuals from different households all test positive and have been in close contact.”
He said he has talked to O’Neill.

“They did everything correctly,” Rutherford said. “We’ve come to terms with the fact that public health at the national level doesn’t have the ability to do all contact tracing.”

VHS grad Claudia Ramsey earns medical degree

Claudia Ramsey, a 2013 Vicksburg High School graduate will receive her medical degree in May from the Medical College of Wisconsin. Ramsey graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in biomedical sciences from Central Michigan University. During her time at CMU, she won four biology department scholarships, completed three medical/public health Global Brigades to Central American and participated in tuberculosis research. While earning her MD at the Medical College of Wisconsin, she received the Hiram Benjamin Award in Anatomy, was a Pasteur Award candidate, and was a four-time recipient of the Scott Scholarship. She managed the Medical College of Wisconsin’s Saturday Clinic for the uninsured and participated in research to increase access to fresh produce for Milwaukee residents. Ramsey will graduate as a member of the Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Society and will begin her training at the University of California San Diego and Rady Children’s Hospital Pediatric Residency Training this July.

Vicksburg bands prepare for concert, raffle

After a challenging year, Vicksburg Middle School and High School bands are preparing for their spring concert. The event will be held outdoors in the Vicksburg Stadium at 7 p.m. May 25.

During the concert, the winners of the annual spring raffle will be drawn. Tickets are $5 with a chance to win $2,500, $1,000, or $500. They’re available for purchase from band students, band parents or at Craig Rolfe’s office at 328 West Prairie Street, Vicksburg.

As Band Director Ben Rosier reflects on the year, he’s proud of his students and their continued striving for excellence; he is also thankful for the help of the administration’s safety protocols that “kept our student musicians healthy throughout our music making.” Rosier is planning a full calendar of events for summer as well as the return of the Big Red Machine in the fall.

VCS union leader seeks more input for coming year

By Jef Rietsma

Vicksburg Education Association President Jennifer Rodas wants the union to be involved in administrative discussions centering on the 2021-22 academic year, she told School Board members at an April 12 meeting.

“We are asking that the district include us in the process. We are hoping that decisions and discussions will be made with us and not communicated to us later,” Rodas said. “We are hoping to have a better return to school than we did in the 2020 fall.”

She also implored board members to consider hiring more school counselors to help students who are struggling with stress and other issues wrought by COVID-19. She said more school counselors would provide relief for a five-person team of counselors that, she said, is overworked and at risk of burnout.

“We are hoping that the district and the school board will invest in the emotional well-being of our students and give our counseling staff realistic expectations with the amount of students they can service effectively,” she said.

The district took the first step in a borrowing process to purchase six new buses. Assistant Superintendent Steve Goss said the installment purchase agreement was originally discussed in February.

The 77-passenger, gasoline-powered buses will be purchased through the Michigan School Business Officials Cooperative bidding program at a total cost of $533,478.

“In our experience, we get the best prices available by doing that,” he said. “We’re going to take advantage of very low interest rates and we’ll pay those notes off in three years.”

Also, O’Neill said the district’s partnership with South County Community Services and Kalamazoo County Health Department to stage a vaccine clinic at the high school was a success. The event took place March 31.

VCSF awards reading and Earth Day grants

4th graders Emma Welch (left) and Alyssa Smith (right) help advisor Michelle Malito with Earth Day activities.

By Bob Willhite

The Vicksburg Community Schools Foundation approved a grant for the district’s third-grade students to receive books via mail throughout the summer, adding an additional component to the three elementary schools’ summer reading initiatives.  

To help engage current third-grade students to read throughout the summer, the staff proposed the implementation of Kids Read Now, a nonprofit summer reading program.

Kids Read Now sends children nine brand new books through the mail, and families are able to keep the books. Students also receive comprehension postcards which help connect students to their reading.

During a kick-off event, families and students will learn about the summer program, and students will select their first three books, designed to share their interest and preferred genres. The total cost per student is $39.99, totaling $7,118.22 for all of the district’s third grade students. The VCS Foundation funded $6,618.22.

The foundation also gave a $300 Curiosity Grant to the Sunset Lake Leadership Team – the student council – for its Earth Day service project. The total cost was $612, with the leadership team paying the other portion. These student leaders handed out 600 Douglas fir saplings to the entire student body and staff.

Vicksburg deals with summer learning, construction

By Jef Rietsma

Vicksburg Community Schools officials are preparing for a busy summer at some of its buildings.

In addition to juggling a few significant construction projects, administrators face the task of coordinating summer-learning programs.

“We have ramped up our discussions around the summer … one of the big maneuvering aspects of summer services is, as we’re doing construction, where can we put the kids?” Superintendent Keevin O’Neill said. “We certainly will be working through that and we’re confident we can put together a plan. We’re working with our staff right now to see the interest in doing some summer school, so, stay tuned.”

Board member David Schriemer acknowledged the district’s staff has gone above and beyond this year, and deserves a break. Still, Schriemer said he hopes there are some enthusiastic teachers willing to help out this summer.

“I think it’s so critical and if we have more dollars available to do something, I really hope we’re able to do something even bigger than we’ve done before,” Schriemer said. “I think that’d be fantastic.”

In response, O’Neill referenced House Bill 4048, which would provide funding from the state for teachers and support staff involved in K-8 summer programs or high school credit-recovery programs.

Assistant Superintendent Steve Goss elaborated on the pending construction work taking place this summer at Sunset Lake and Tobey schools, financed through last year’s voter-approved bond issue.

“The work is about $5.2 million worth of construction and it’s going to relate primarily to upgrading the mechanical systems at those two buildings. There’s a lot of work that goes along with that,” Goss said.

He said the work will include new windows, replacing curtain walls, a stucco-like façade, mechanical upgrades to bring cooling systems into the buildings, new piping, electrical upgrades including a conversion to LED lighting and acoustic ceilings.

“It’s very daunting when you look at the summer construction season and every year the needs to use the building for the summer go up and up and up,” he said, adding that a number of discussions have taken place with principals, O’Neill, the district’s curriculum director and others in an attempt to coordinate summer-instruction options. “I feel like we’re walking a tightrope because we have a limited amount of time to do a lot of work, and we have a limited amount of time to work with our students.”

Goss said the added expense of running air conditioning at the schools will be largely offset by savings realized through the installation of energy-efficient windows, exterior insulation and LED lighting. Replacing the single-pane, glass windows – which are original from the building’s opening – at the east side of Sunset Lake, for example, will result in a substantial degree of energy efficiency.

Work at Sunset Lake will be done over two summers considering the magnitude of construction there.

Sixteen bid packages related to the summer work were subsequently approved by the board. The board in coming months is expected to review bids related to stadium improvements at the high school. The work will include replacement turf on the football field, and replacement asphalt and track coating.

Meanwhile, O’Neill said the majority of the district’s employees have had their second COVID-19 vaccination. As a result, some parents have inquired about class sizes, as some families want to move their children from virtual back into in-person learning.

He said the district has capped its elementary rooms to 23 students and is has started to add potential returning students to a waiting list.

“If there’s no room in their home elementary school in that grade level, we ask them if they would like to attend a different elementary for this school year only,” he said. “We’ve had some success there.”

O’Neill said there has been no consideration given to increasing class sizes beyond 23 students per room.

VHS students qualify for DECA state conference

By Justin McDonald, DECA advisor

Vicksburg High students Max Dinzik, Alyvia Bailey and Jacob Wood qualified for the state Distributive Education Clubs of America (DECA) state conference. DECA is a business club that prepares emerging leaders and entrepreneurs in marketing, finance, hospitality and management in high schools and colleges around the globe. DECA students compete in live role plays in front of a judge and take an exam for their event category for district, state and international conferences.

Max Dinzik qualified for the Sports and Entertainment Marketing series event. This is his second year in DECA. He is a two-time state conference qualifier. Alyvia Bailey is a first-year DECA member and qualified for the state conference in the Principles of Marketing series event. Jacob Wood is a third-year DECA member and qualified for the state conference in the Quick Serve Restaurant Management series event. He is a two-time state conference qualifier. All three students are district conference champions, which is a requirement to qualify for the state conference.

DECA was conducted virtually this year due to the pandemic. Normally, students would have traveled to Detroit for the state conference and to Anaheim, California for the international conference if they qualified.

Students continue service activities in Vicksburg

By Kathy Oswalt-Forsythe

Vicksburg Middle School Student Senate Serve and Create “Fun Fridays”

While many of the activities Vicksburg Middle School students usually promote were cancelled this year, members still worked on a service project and promoted some fun for everyone in the building. Melissa Tutt, the group’s advisor, said meetings have been limited, but the students did make five blankets for a fire station in Battle Creek, a project that has existed for several years. Tutt says the students are excited because they get to deliver the blankets this year. “Places we have donated to in the past haven’t allowed us to deliver them ourselves. We will not be able to go inside the fire station, but they will be able to come outside, and the students can give them their gifts.”

Tutt’s group also decided to create activities that encourage everyone to have a little fun. Students came up with a list of fun things for students and staff to do on Fridays. The group labelled it “Fun Fridays.” Senate members select a theme from an approved list. The theme is announced on Monday so students have all week to decide what they will be wearing. Some of this year’s themes include hat day, favorite television/movie T-shirt day, wear a specific color by grade day, and mix-matched clothing day. The activities generate some excitement and are allowed because participants can remain six feet apart.

In April, the group will plan for teacher appreciation week, and Tutt remains optimistic the students can include one more activity before the end of the year.

Indian Lake Elementary Students Help as They Can

Most of Indian Lake Elementary Student Council activities have been done virtually this year. Diana Haring, the group’s advisor, said that while it has been an adjustment, her students have created and continued activities to improve their school.

This year, students have written and recorded announcements for teachers to play. They have promoted spirit days while students were in school face-to-face, and for days when the district’s schools were shut down during the pandemic. The school’s spirit week before the holiday break included festive hat day, holiday socks day, ugly sweater day, elf day, and pajama day.

The students purchased social/emotional tools for classrooms and held a virtual talent show last spring, with one in the works for this year. One project the group worked on for the whole year is assisting with building recycling. Students collect the recycling materials from classrooms and offices and take it to the recycling dumpster.

Haring acknowledges that there haven’t been the usual “monthly” projects the group has done in the past, “but we are helping our school where we can during this pandemic.”   

Sunset Lake Lighthouse Team Meets Virtually and Plans to Grow

Michelle Malito and Kristina Newhouse, staff advisors for Sunset Lake’s Lighthouse Team, hope to increase the group’s size for next year. This year, the group student leaders, committed to making a positive contribution to their school, held virtual bi-weekly meetings. During this time, students sit in the hallway with their headphones and Chromebooks. Malito said they also have two fully virtual students who are part of the group and join the scheduled meetings.

Even with the challenges of COVID, this year’s group has been busy. Emma Welch, a 4th grade Lighthouse Team member describes this year’s efforts. “In February we did a black history event by highlighting a famous black American in history on morning announcements for all the school days. Also in March we created a calendar for the ‘March is Reading Month’ theme. In April we plan on doing a Sunset Lake Elementary school Earth Day service which is still being decided by the Student Lighthouse Team.”

The pandemic limited the group’s recruitment at the end of the last year so this year’s group was smaller. The applications for next year’s group, which includes teacher recommendations, begin in May. Malito intends to grow the group for next year, including students from every grade level.

Schoolcraft hires new superintendent

Schoolcraft school board members welcomed the district’s next superintendent. Front row, from left, are board Secretary Katie Redmond, superintendent-designate Rick Frens and President Jennifer Gottschalk. Back row, from left, are Trustee Adam Haley, Treasurer Wade Rutkoskie, Vice-President Jason Walther, and Trustee Randy Blankenship. Frens starts July 1.

By Travis Smola

The Schoolcraft Board of Education in March hired Rick Frens as the district’s next superintendent effective July 1. He will replace Superintendent Rusty Stitt, leaving after 10 years with the district.

Frens is originally from Grand Rapids and attended Grand Rapids Christian Schools before going on to Hope College, where he played football and majored in special education. He taught special education in nearby Wyoming before moving to southern Maine where he taught special education at Noble High School in North Berwick, Maine. After his wife Meg was offered an athletic trainer position at Hope College, they moved back to Michigan.

From there, he resumed his special education work at Grandville High School while also earning a master’s degree in educational leadership at Grand Valley State University. Frens’ first job in administration was assistant principal at Kelloggsville Middle School. He also served as assistant principal at the high school there. For the last eight years, Frens has served as Hamilton Middle School’s principal.

In addition to his administrative work, he has also served on the executive board of Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals. Frens has also been highly involved with athletics, serving on the executive board of the Ottawa-Kent Athletic Conference and coached football and track at Grandville.

“I feel my professional and personal experiences have prepared me well to lead in Schoolcraft and maintain the positive forward momentum of the district,” Frens said in an email. “We have so many great resources including strong academics, a top-notch team of staff members, a bond construction project and solid community support.”

Frens and his wife have three children. Their son, Sam, is set to graduate from Hamilton High School this year and will attend Hope College in the fall. Their older daughter, Nora, is a freshman. Their younger daughter is a fifth grader. It seems they already have the spirit for Schoolcraft too.

“Paige hasn’t taken off her Schoolcraft Eagles hat since it was dropped off the other day,” Frens told the board at the meeting.

Board members and building administrators at the end of the meeting congratulated Frens on having earned the job.

Vicksburg schools, union, reach agreement

By Jef Rietsma

An agreement between Vicksburg Community Schools and the Vicksburg Education Association dealing with changed working conditions due to COVID-19 will provide an extra $1,000 and three more sick days with pay for the school year ending in June.

The agreement ended months of negotiations.

Superintendent Keevin O’Neill said the agreement was “totally appropriate.”

“It definitely wasn’t just Vicksburg, it was all across many public school districts to get an agreement – whether it was financial working conditions, agreement to work in a hybrid, to teach virtual – anything that was a change to what we would consider a normal teaching duty,” O’Neill said. “Yes, absolutely appropriate; I couldn’t be any happier that we finally did reach an agreement. On top of that, when the vaccinations came out, it relaxed everybody.”

He said the process of ironing out the letter of agreement started last summer and continued through the end of January, with multiple proposals going back and forth. The agreement was completed in early February. Its provisions were announced at the March meeting.

Completing his third year as Vicksburg superintendent, O’Neill said the agreement required the services of a state mediator. He said the process was good for both sides and drastically helped expedite the pact.

“At this point, we’ll start looking forward to the fall, try to figure out what that’s going to look like and what we have to get done from now until then,” he said. “It’s difficult to predict, of course.”

Kelly MacDonell, VEA secretary, said the agreement included a provision for the district to provide staff with personal protection equipment needed to clean desks and classrooms.

“The [agreement] also extended the Families First Coronavirus Response Act paid leave for staff members who contract or must quarantine due to COVID-19,” she said. “Staff members are grateful to be vaccinated. However, we are still concerned about transmission between students and home to unvaccinated caregivers.”

She said secondary and intervention staff continue to sanitize classrooms between every class period – more than eight times daily.

MacDonell said it was also important to the VEA to include language that teachers will continue to be compensated for their work on extra-curricular clubs and events.

“Many teachers are finding safe and creative ways to complete the activities the community has come to enjoy such as yearbook, band and musicals,” she added. “The VEA is still awaiting judgment on whether the changes to our working conditions to teach virtual and in-person students at the same time violates our contract.”

Besides the additional pay and paid sick days, the agreement includes a stipulation that a teacher may choose to work remotely but is not required to.