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Schools await state guidance

IRON RIVER / CRYSTAL FALLS — Like the other districts in Michigan during the COVID-19 outbreak, the West Iron County and Forest Park school districts are in limbo.
    After Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered the closure of all K-12 school buildings – public, private and boarding – on March 16, districts across the state have been caught in a precarious waiting game. Two weeks later, administrators, teachers and students still don’t know if their schools will re-open at all the rest of the school year.
    On March 27, Gov. Whitmer told WWJ news radio in Detroit that it was “very unlikely” students would return to school this spring, but she had “not made that call yet.” According to the Associated Press, Whitmer is expected to announce a plan this week to make sure seniors graduate and no child is held back due to the lack of face-to-face instruction, spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said.
    While there have been no set plans announced at the state level from the legislature, the governor or the Michigan Department of Education as of March 30, districts can’t wait forever and must begin to make plans for the delivery of educational content and instruction. Not to mention spring activities like class trips, school visits, athletics, prom and especially graduation and promotion.
    The original dictate from the state was that schools were to be closed until April 6. But the Stay Home, Stay Safe order Whitmer released on March 24 pushed that back to April 13 and there is still no plan from the governor or the state legislature on how to proceed.
    Which of course, has frustrated district administrators to the point of annoyance.
    “I’m still waiting guidance from the state of Michigan on how we are to proceed,” WIC Superintendent Chris Thomson said on March 25.
    “The superintendents just finished a conference call with Senators (Ed) McBroom and (Wayne) Schmidt, who said they won’t meet again until either April 1 or April 7 to make decisions on educational matters such as continued funding and waiver of the days/weeks that have resulted from COV-19,” FP Superintendent Becky Waters said.
    “Yes, uncertainty with all activities at this point. Hopefully we will get clarity either April 1 or April 7.”
    On March 26, the executive directors of the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators, the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators and the Michigan Association of School Boards released a statement regarding COVID-19 “school closures and certainty for educators, students and families.”
    “Today we call on state officials including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, State Superintendent Dr. Michael Rice, the Legislative Quadrant, and state lawmakers to immediately provide clarity to Michiganders on what’s next for our children Further delay creates uncertainty for countless communities across our state.
    The statement also urged the state to develop a clear framework and plan to guide districts in educating children. This framework “must acknowledge the incredible disparities that exist between communities related to technology, access to broadband, and other resources while clearly identifying methods in which districts will be able to provide quality instruction in a variety of ways, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.”
    Thomson said some helpful news came out of the conference call between state superintendents and his fellow U.P. superintendents late last week.
    “Was good to hear that (downstate), they understand that a one-size-fits-all solution is not going to work,” Thomson said. “There are demographics that may have 90 percent internet collectivity and other districts have 25 percent internet connectivity. So, they understand that basically each district is going to have to do what it has to do to finish the school year.”
    There are a bevy of sticky questions for school districts that arise from the idea of canceling the rest of the school year, including how to deliver educational services and in what way, how to insure that all students, including those with special needs and individual educational plans, receive those services, what to do about pay for non-salaried employees, and what to do about spring activities ranging from prom to athletic events to graduation and promotion.
    Consider state assessment testing. On March 23, the Michigan Department of Education said it received preliminary approval from the U.S. Department of Education to waive a number of federal requirements for statewide testing and school accountability.
    Rice sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos that because of the extensive school closures resulting from the COVID-19 crises, Michigan requested the waivers because “it is not possible to administer assessments required under federal law or to comply with the accompanying school accountability requirements.”
    Waters and Thomson both said their districts and their teachers will continue to explore ways to fulfill their educations duties to their students.
    “I am virtually meeting with staff (this week) to provide educational materials and ideas for our students,” Waters said.
    “If the state (says) don’t go to school for the rest of the year, we have to have different methodologies for delivery instruction and content,” Thomson said, adding that middle school/high school principal Mike Berutti and Stambaugh Elementary School principal Michelle Thomson are working on that currently.
    “And I am sure we have staff working on that right now,” Thomson added. “So, when we are given the plan and guidance, we’ll be ready to roll.
    “So, can we fulfill our responsibilities educationally?” Thomson said “Yeah, we can. It might not be how we’re accustomed to though.”
    All along, both districts have continued their food service. Waters said her district is providing three days of breakfasts and lunches on Tuesday and then four days of breakfast and lunches on Thursday to tide families over.    
    At West Iron, the numbers of meals served daily has been approximately 200, Thomson said.
    As for spring activities, both Waters and Thomson said that all spring activities as of right now are suspended.
    --At its regularly monthly meeting on March 17, the West Iron County School Board voted to proceed with the Stambaugh Elementary School renovation project, which will change out all windows and all classroom heating systems over the next two summers. The bid for the project came in at around $900,000, Thomson said.
    Thomson said the district will pay for the work through the use of its sinking fund monies and general fund monies.
    --The Forest Park School Board’s regularly meeting in March was cancelled because of COVID-19 recommendations against meeting in groups and social distancing. However, Waters said the board offered its superintendent position (Waters is retiring on June 30) to Christy Larson, the current superintendent of the Belmont Community Schools in Belmont, Wis. Waters said Larson asked for an extension to confirm her answer due to the outbreak of coronavirus.