Saline Schools Set Timetable for 4-Day-a-Week In-Person Instruction

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Saline Area Schools Interim Superintendent Steve Laatsch announced another step toward more in-person learning during Tuesday's Board of Education meeting.

As previously announced, four-day-a-week in-person instruction will begin for K-3 students at Pleasant Ridge, Harvest  and Woodland Meadows Elementary schools starting Monday, March 15, as long as there is not a dramatic spike in COVID-19 numbers.

What's new is that the district is planning to have four-day-a-week in-person learning at Heritage Elementary, Saline Middle School and Saline High School starting the week of April 5. This assumes a successful transition in the K-3 buildings and no dramatic spikes in local COVID-19 cases.

The four-day-a-week program is for the students whose parents chose a return to full-time, in-person learning. Those families who chose virtual learning will continue in that model.

COVID-19 metrics have continued to improve. The most important metric here, however, may be the percentage of staff who'll be vaccinated by April 5. 

"The good news is that the latest round that we just had over this past weekend will now put every educator on track to have their second vaccination shot by April 3," Laatsch told the board. "We are trying to keep it safe for our educators with the knowledge that social distance team will be more challenging as we move more students into the buildings."

Laatsch said when he speaks of educators, he's talking about teachers, paraeducators, bus drivers, food service staff, administrators and other school employees.

In terms of COVID-19's progress indicators, most of the district's focus areas were deemed excellent. (see table below).

In Washtenaw County, cases are down and positivity is down. Laatsch noted a slight increase in hospitalizations - but they're still down from previous highs.

Laatsch said there has been no evidence yet of spread in the schools - even in cases where students or staff diagnosed with COVID-19 have had close contact with other people in the buildings.

The model Laatsch proposed keeps Friday as the "asynchronous" day to support staff and students. The asynchronous day will allow meetings in the K-5 level, a day for more connection with virtual learners at the middle school level, connections with ninth graders from mentors, groups run by counselors and social workers, staff time to digitize lessons for virtual learners., meetings for students with special needs and more.

Laatsch said there are challenges. Distancing will be an issue in some areas. But because there are a number of students staying remote, there's concern it won't be as difficult as first feared. 

To help keep spacing at lunchtime, the district is trying things like using a tent outdoors at Heritage. At the middle school, they'll consider using the gym to allow for social distancing during lunch.

The district is ordering more PPE for people who wish to double-mask and N95 masks.

Laatsch urged families to continue assisting the school district keep COVID-19 out of the schools.

"Parents have done an excellent job with monitoring student illness and not sending kids to school when they're are ill," Laatsch said.

There is concern that more interaction and more people in close quarters will lead to increased cases and more quarantining. Laatsch allowed for the possibility that in-person learning could be rolled back if that happens.

Another issue is that a scattering of students, due to higher-than-anticipated class sizes and social distancing concerns, will not be able to return to their regular school and keep the teacher they've had all year.

The debate over increased in-person learning has been raging since summer. Prior to the meeting, about 50 people rallied in front of Liberty School, demanding more in-person learning for their children.

Danielle Gillespie helped organize the rally and launche an online petition, signed by more than 840 people, to have full-time in-person learning in Saline Schools.

"A lot of people agree their kids are not thriving well at home," said Danielle Gillespie. She said most parents chose full-time in-person learning when the surveys were conducted in the fall, and that the district should live up to providing the option. 

Gillespie, an emergency room nurse, decided to take action when she saw two teenagers who'd attempted suicide in the same week.

"I feel like mental health issues are peaking and COVID issues are going down," Gillespie said. "School is the cure for these kids right now."

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On the other hand, high school students against more in-person learning have grown increasingly vocal. Four spoke against it during public comment at Tuesday's. Sam Jane said he was happy with the hybrid model that provides students in-person learning twice a week, saying it provides structure, a chance to see friends and some semblance of normalcy without the feeling they were breaking social-distancing rules.

He said having most of the students back in school four days-a-week would be "nerve-wracking." He said he would hate to catch the virus at school and then spread it to a family member.

"I would feel extremely guilty and wouldn't be able to get over that very easily," Jane said. "What's the rush to get back to school? It almost feels like we are pushing the envelope."

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Members of the board had a few questions and comments about the plan.

Trustee Susan Estep raised several questions.  She asked Laatsch why the district would increase in-person learning when many COVID-19 metrics match what they were in October, when the district was still at twice-a-day in-person.

Laatsch pointed out that in October, the numbers were rising. Right now, most indicators are falling. Plus, there were no vaccinations in October.

"We didn't have the educator vaccination process that we have now," Laatsch said. "In addition, we do have a lot of our own data that shows that even when kids are close to each other, they're not spreading COVID."

Trustee Jenny Miller thanked the district's teachers for their willingness to help students adapt. She said one of her children chose to return virtually. However, she decided that maybe she wanted to return to school. High school staff allowed her to return for a shortened day so she could test the waters. She's decided she wants to return to in-person learning.

"Because of that accommodation and because of that support she is moving to the four-day schedule. I just wanted to say to the community that our administrators and our teachers have an abundance of care and love and support for our students," Miller said.

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