Saline Schools Plan Return to 4-Day-A-Week In-Person Learning Next Week, Decision Friday

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Saline Area Schools Interim Superintendent Steve Laatsch told the Board of Education the district plans to continue four-day-a-week in-person instruction Monday. Remote learning will continue for families who chose that route.

The district will finalize the decision after reviewing COVID-19 data Friday.

The decision comes as Washtenaw County set single-day records for COVID-19 positives and hospitalizations. Last week, after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer called on schools to voluntarily suspend in-person learning and school sports for two weeks, the district scaled back in-person learning to twice-a-week at Saline High School and maintained 4-day-a-week learning in the other schools. The district was already changing its schedule this week due to testing.

The decision by Whitmer to offer "recommendations" instead of closing down schools and restaurants and the announcement by Saline schools illustrate the changing way people want to live with this 13-month-old pandemic, even as COVID-19 numbers metrics surpass the fall peak.

Laatsch talked about the way in-person instruction benefits students.

"Schools provide more than just academics to children and adolescents. When I walk around the buildings these last two weeks, I am seeing students that are really happy to be back" Laatsch said. "We talk about that social-emotional support. There's the exercise, the element of mental health and support services that are happening with more in-person instruction, and that, for many kids, this is really where they're getting that safe, stimulating, and enrichment while parents or guardians are working."

Laatsch also talked about the importance of in-person instruction for students younger grades. 

Over the course of the pandemic, the district has learned to operate safely.  Laatsch said district nurse Karan Hervey and her staff don't believe there's evidence of spread in school. He credited school district staff, students and parents for continuing mitigation efforts. At the high school level, there have been more cases, most among students involved in athletics. Laatsch said the spread doesn't appear to happen during play, but after gamesor on weekends.

Last fall, 70 percent of parents chose in-person learning when the district announced two-streams. That number increased to 80 percent for the final trimester, though some families have elected to return to remote learning with the recent wave.

In-person instruction is challenging during a pandemic. There were five cases at Woodland Meadows, one of the district's K-3 elementary schools. Though the cases appear isolated two entire classes were quarantined,based on Washtenaw County Health Department guidance.  Stricter measures are used at the lower levels because it's believed young children struggle to maintain distancing rules. These quarantines, whether it's two children or an entire class, provide immense challenges for teachers, students and families.

Still, despite the challenges, parents want their children in school, Laatsch said.

"Most families are okay with the risk associated with more in-person instruction even though increased quarantine does provide many issues for students, families and teachers," Laatsch said.

The district has tackled the challenge of lunches, during which students remove their masks to eat, in several ways. Outdoor lunches have helped social distancing efforts at the high school and at Heritage. At the middle school, lunches are taking place in the gym.

Several board members had questions for Laatsch.

Trustee Jenny Miller asked why the high school returned to the two-day-a-week hybrid model while Woodland Meadows stayed at four days, even though 16 percent of the elementary school's population was in quarantine.

Laatsch said having young learners back in-person has been identified as a need in the district. Laatsch also said there was no evidence of spread within the school.

Estep questioned how the district could continue 4-day-a-week instruction as cases rose and other indicators worsened and as Gov. Whitmer called on districts to halt in-person learning for two weeks.

Laatsch said it would have seemed punitive to Saline's student-athletes to halt sports when they've tested incredibly well. He said other school districts in Washtenaw County came to the same conclusion.

Despite the 16 positives at the high school, Laatsch said the district was comfortable with the hybrid model this week as testing Tuesday and Wednesday reduced the amount of students in the building.

And, Laatsch reiterated, the district is not seeing evidence of in-school spread.

Board president Jennifer Steben said she was amazed by the low testing numbers among student-athletes and praised coaches and students. Steben said she was proud of the resiliency shown by staff and students.

All of the district's decision-making could be voided this afternoon, depending on what Gov. Gretchen Whitmer decides.

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