With COVID-19 impacting communities across the country, many local families are being pushed into an uncertain situation. Many businesses are closing or facing reduced hours of operation, and the recently issued stay at home order by the Governor’s office has resulted in many people being laid off of work.
While these uncertain times are impacting nearly everyone, the parents and guardians of school aged children have the added factor of how the whole situation will affect their children’s schooling.
To get a better idea of the current state of affairs in our local schools, we reached out to Portland Public School Superintendent Will Heath, and St. Patrick School Principals Randy Hodge and Cortney Smith.
Executive Order 2020-5 called for the closure of all schools in the state effective Monday, March 16th through April 5th. Both Portland Public and St Patrick’s actually closed on Friday March 13th. Executive Order 2020-21 extended school closures through 11:59 PM on April 13th. Unless any additional orders are issued, the soonest students would return to classrooms would be Tuesday, April 14th.
When asked what the primary concerns he is hearing from his staff hearing from staff, Heath told the Beacon, “At this point our staff concerns are probably the same as everyone else’s concerns as they deal with the uncertainty of the future. Most people who work in schools are planners by nature. It is difficult to develop plans without knowing some sense of how long we will be shut down. Our concern is that without the ability to plan for the future we struggle to understand how we will help students and families. The loss of education for our students is not something that will be easily resolved. This extended shutdown will create the same declines, if not worse, that we see after a summer break.”
As for concerns he was hearing from families, Heath said, “Every family has their own individual concerns and needs. We have families who are still required to work during this period and struggle to help educate their children. We have tried as a district to provide resources for these families. Our goal is not to overwhelm families and not set them up for failure. We continue to reach out to families who we know may need support. If there is anything the district can do to help families in this time period please email your building principals or myself.”
In a joint response, Hodge and Smith told the Beacon “St. Patrick Catholic School is committed to helping our students and families through this unprecedented time. This is who we are as a community of faith and school community. It has been amazing to see how everyone has banded together to support each other even though we cannot be physically present with each other.”
Hodge and Smith also said, “Our teachers in grades 6-12 are doing an amazing job of staying connected with their students through digital learning. These strategies were already being used in our classrooms which made the necessary switch possible. Our elementary teachers are sending packets of lessons home each week and reaching out digitally whenever applicable. I continue to be impressed by the leadership and creativity of our staff.”
We also asked Heath is Portland Public teachers were being paid through the shut-down. He said, “This depends on how you want to look at this but the simple answer is yes. Teachers in Portland are paid on a 185.5 day contract for the year. Most teachers spread that pay over 26 pay periods, which gives them a pay check throughout the year. We continue to pay teachers during this shutdown with the assumption that we will either complete the 185.5 day contract or the State will give guidance, or waive, requirements for districts to meet the 180 day student requirement for the year This would then potentially adjust the number of days teachers need to work to fulfill their contract.”
As for support, administrative and transportation staff being paid during the shut-down, Heath said, “Our non-union salary employees (admin), support staff, and third party contracted employees are all receiving pay for days scheduled to work during this shutdown period. Our non-union salary employees have a specific number of days that they have to work to complete their yearly contract. They are all working from home during this time period and this counts as days towards their contractual requirement. We are fortunate at this time that we are able to pay the rest of our employees and third party contracted employees during this initial shutdown that lasts through April 13th. The district will reevaluate our current practice if and when this shutdown period is extended.”
Heath added, “Currently we have essential staff that report daily to ensure that the buildings stay operational and that we can provide food services. Those include Central Office staff (Superintendent, Payroll, Accounts Payable), Food Service Staff, and our Operations staff (grounds/cleaning/maintenance).”
Through the school closure, local school aged children have been able to receive free meals from the schools. When asked for more details on how this was being made possible, Heath said, “After the initial shutdown the Governor’s office and the Michigan Department of Education worked with districts to temporarily suspend several of the regulations that would prevent districts from serving meals to students when they are shut down. The National School Lunch Program is paying for these meals. The reimbursement rate for meals includes the cost of staff preparing the meals.”
Heath added, “Our food service contractor, Chartwells, has done an amazing job preparing meals and getting them to families. We have a few hourly employees that normally would not be paid during this shutdown that we have had come in and assist this operation as well. This allows the district to pay them throughout the shutdown period. Last week we handed out 5584 meals to 388 families. Very impressive!”
He also said, “This week we started home deliveries and an evening pick up for our families. That was a huge undertaking by our transportation department and food service to develop a bus route and coordinate with each other to make these deliveries. We delivered over 2,240 meals today (March 24th). Nice job to all involved!”
The meal program is available to all students in the district, including those who attend St. Patrick. Hodge and Smith said, “our students have the same opportunity to get served through Portland Public’s meal program if the need should arise. This program has done a great job of taking great care of all families in the greater Portland area and we are very appreciative.”
Executive Order 2020-15 allows for the temporary use of remote meeting tools for public boards, including boards of education. We asked Heath if the PPS Board of Education meeting throughout the closure? He said, “Our next meeting date is April 13th which is the last day of the closure. There is a good chance that the Board will either cancel or move that meeting date. This will depend on how things look for our return to school. I am working on a plan right now that would allow the Board to meet virtually and still be open to the public. There has been a recent Executive Order that will allow us to do that during the shutdown period. We will only use this option if we are extended.”
The Detroit Free Press recently published an article titled “Public schools won't count online learning time but private schools will”. That article can be found at https://www.freep.com/story/news/education/2020/03/20/michigan-department-education-schools-online-learning-coronavirus/2883849001/. That article explains that current law does not allow for online instruction to count towards regular hours. It quoted State Superintendent of Public Instruction Michael Rice as saying “The state legislature should change state law to permit days out of school for this public health emergency to be counted as instructional days."
When asked about this article, Heath said, “I agree that these days should be counted as instructional days. The State of Michigan is unfortunately way behind other States in providing the flexibility for districts to count home/virtual instruction as allowable instruction time. To move towards that now would take too long to be successful for this current shutdown period. Our State has only provided roadblocks when it comes to innovation and flexibility. All of our neighboring States have developed eLearning Days that allows districts, if they are working virtually, to count days that were cancelled. Here is a summary: eLearning Days. For districts to be asked to quickly do what took some States years to accomplish is asking too much and is guaranteed to be full of issues and inequalities. With that said, I personally am confident that if there is some flexibility given to districts, to virtually educate the majority of our students, that Portland Public Schools can develop a plan to be successful. Portland has run an extremely successful virtual program through PACE for years and we have learned a lot from running that program.”
In regard to this same article, Hodge and Smith said, “The 31 Catholic schools in the Diocese of Grand Rapids are not public schools or public charter schools and are not subject to the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) memorandum. We follow the Michigan Association of Non-public Schools (MANS) guidelines and diocesan calendar standards rather than MDE requirements.”
“Our Superintendent of Catholic Schools has informed our families the instruction which Catholic school students are currently receiving through remote learning will be counted, and Catholic schools in the diocese will continue to deliver instruction. We believe it is in the best interest of our students to continue their Catholic education during this unprecedented time.”
Form the PPS perspective we asked that, if approved by the State, how quickly could the district implement that? Heath said, “This all depends on the requirements that are needed by the State of Michigan and the Department of Education to count online instruction as a day of instruction. At a minimum we would need staff training and provide time to develop online programs. I strongly discourage dumping students into an online platform and thinking we will have any form of success. To make online learning successful there needs to be real people providing real support in real time.”
As for what parents could expect if online instruction is implemented, Heath said, “Anyone who has a student in an online class currently knows that there needs to be support at home and school to successfully complete these courses. For online to work, adults need to help students build routines and schedules to get work done and this looks different for every student. We would need a lot of home support if we enter into a situation where we would have to move to online learning without students having the opportunity to come to school for at least a portion of the week. A preferred method would be a blended model where students have the opportunity to come to school for a day or more during the week and then the rest of the time online. That will be impossible during the current shutdown period but could be an option if we are extended. As a district we would provide pacing guides and targeted completion dates for students and families. We will work to continue to provide academic and non-academic support virtually that our students traditionally rely on daily.”
Many parents are currently on week two of having their kids home all day. While this time together is likely leading an increased level of respect for what a teacher does all day, it is also leading to several funny social media posts about the situation.
We asked local school leaders what the community can do to be most supportive of our schools at this time? Heath said, “My suggestion is to make the most out of this time. Of course, practice good hygiene and social distancing, but beyond that use it as a time to reconnect and learn from each other. Do your best to continue to educate your children at home. Reach out to the district if you have any questions or need help. We will do everything we can to support you. Learning at home is different from learning at school. Do your best to keep them engaged and learning. It may look different, but you will be surprised at what you can accomplish. As a school we will continue to make plans and push for a return this school year.”
We also asked these leaders what their most pressing concerns are right now? Heath said, “As a Superintendent my day to day is usually planning for months ahead. I do not have any extra information right now that the public doesn’t already have. It is difficult to make decisions, develop plans, and provide communication without knowing the future or at least some idea of the decisions that are being made at the State level. My concern is that this shutdown will have a significant impact on our students' education, not just now but also in the future. As a district we will fill gaps in education, that this time off created, for years to come. There is also a social and emotional toll that this is taking on our students. We provide a lot of non-academic support to students during normal days. I can only imagine what our students may be going through now. I am worried at what happens when these students return and how we will best handle delivering all of the supports that will be needed.”
He added, “My best way to deal with the stress of this shutdown is to look forward to developing a plan for students to return. At this point I do not have enough information to make any of those plans. But, we have created several plans based on several different scenarios. My hope is that we get to implement one of them this year.”
Photo courtesy of Will Heath.