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  • James Townsend

Superintendent Will Heath answers reader questions

Portland Public Schools Superintendent Will Heath graciously agreed to answer questions from Portland Beacon readers. Below you will find those reader submitted questions, as well as Heath's responses.

Heath said, "I want to thank our community members and the Beacon Staff for the opportunity to answer these questions. Throughout this COVID-19 shutdown the district has communicated the most up-to-date information as we get it. Unfortunately, we do not always know what the next steps will be as there is significant amounts of uncertainty. I apologize ahead of time as many of my answers may seem repetitive. The truth is that we don’t know what next fall will look like at this time. As a district we are preparing for several different scenarios. Which one we follow will be determined over this summer. As we know we will communicate. Please know that whatever plan is put in place we will follow guidance from the Ionia County Health Department, State of Michigan, and the CDC."

1. Based on the current social distancing guidelines, are there any plans for an alternative commencement ceremony for 2020 graduates?

Currently, Mrs. Rockey is working with our senior class to determine plans for an alternative commencement ceremony. We are committed to having some sort of ceremony. Our focus is on our seniors and we will gauge the interest of various possible plans. A survey will go out this week to seniors and their parents, from this survey we will determine the most probable ceremony type and date. Any plans that we develop will incorporate specific guidance from the Ionia County Health Department, State of Michigan, and the CDC.

2. Have you received any information from the MHSAA on the likelihood of Fall sports being canceled or modified for 2020?

I know there are a lot of rumors swirling around fall sports. At this time there are no official answers from the MHSAA. As soon as we get that word we will inform the community. There are a lot of variables to consider with athletics. I would say that it is likely that some changes will need to happen with athletics in the fall and potentially for the entire school year. I do not want to speculate on those changes but it is safe to say that there will be a need for social distancing and other best practices for preventing the spread of communicable diseases.

3. Logistically, what would you say would be a practical deadline to decide if the 2020-2021 school year will begin with distance learning or traditional in-person classroom instruction?

I would really like to be able to make that call in early August. Unfortunately, without a vaccination for COVID-19, we may need to quickly move to distance or virtual learning if cases begin to spike again. The district is developing several different plans so that we will be ready for the start of the year. These plans include everything from business as usual all the way to completely virtual learning. We will be able to quickly move from traditional learning to distance learning if we are fortunate to start the school year on time and in person and then, because of health concerns, the State of Michigan decides to close schools. It took us several weeks to develop and implement our Continuity of Learning Plan this year. Our plan is to be ready in the fall so that we can do a quick turnaround and not lose valuable days of instruction.

4. When will a decision be made regarding fall 2020 in regards to mode/delivery of instruction (online, in person, or a hybrid model)? Will that be made as close to the original start day, or will it be with a fair warning (few weeks) prior to the first day of school so families have enough time to plan and make necessary adjustments?

As mentioned in the previous question, we will hopefully be able to make the decision realistically a couple of weeks before school starts. At this time we are planning for traditional education to resume in the fall. Some of our models may require us to run a blended model of instruction. This would look like shorter weeks or days and students would split their time between home and school. With that being said, the district and our families will need to be ready to quickly move between traditional face to face instruction to distance learning/virtual learning and then back again as the current health concerns require.

5. Why is the superintendent no longer writing regular columns for local papers, it was always a good mean for those without school connections to learn what was happening in public education?

While I appreciate the opportunity to communicate with the public as often as possible, I prefer to communicate in a manner that answers the community's questions. This article is an example of how I prefer to communicate to the public. When the district has information to share with the community we run advertisements or work with local papers to publish articles. If you have an idea of an article that you would like to see let me know.

6. What percentage of the improvement millage has been designated for the arts and auditorium, and to date what has been done to keep it safe and current for school and community use?

The current bond initiative has provided several upgrades to the facilities used by our visual and performing arts. Last summer the district irrigated and provided storage for our band practice field as well as upgraded our auditorium technology. This summer we will see upgrades to our elementary and secondary art classrooms, increased sound proofing in the High School Band room, and more technology upgrades in the auditorium. Our third phase to this bond, summer of 2023, we will replace the roofs on the buildings. We are currently investigating and making plans to reduce or eliminate the popping sounds that you hear at the High School. If you have been in the building during temperature changes you know how distracting these popping sounds can be during a performance. As with all of our facilities, any safety concerns are addressed immediately. This most recent bond initiative has provided significant upgrades around the district that addressed safety concerns.

7. How are School Staff members weathering the shutdown?

Thank you for asking this question. Our staff continues to do an outstanding job with delivering distance learning. This has been a huge transition for them and I am extremely proud of their efforts. Overall I think they are handling this time just as well as everyone else. Many of our staff have school aged children at home and have had to manage helping educate their own kids while continuing to deliver distance learning for their students. These times are tough on everyone. I know my staff is maintaining focus on getting back to some sense of normalcy in the fall. That will be good for everyone!

8. What have you been doing to communicate with staff and maintain morale?

Each of our building principals have had various morale boosting virtual events for staff. This past week was teacher appreciation week. The outpouring from the community to recognize teachers via email/video and other ways was greatly appreciated. I think overall the biggest morale boost is just maintaining direct contact with our staff. Making sure our staff knows the most up-to-date information is critical for morale. It is also important in these times to know what is specifically required and needed by the district. Our plan is very structured and it has allowed our teachers to focus on their students. Overall I think morale is as high as it can be during these times.

9. Do you anticipate any furloughs or lay-offs of staff?

I do not see any furloughs or lay-offs for district staff this school year. We have seen furloughs from some of the companies that work in the district, but nothing for district employees. Next year’s budget is looming. There is no doubt that we will see a significant cut to district revenue. It is our intent to continue with our current staff levels for next year. But, that is dependent on how large of a cut we will see from the State. We will know more over the next couple of weeks. I ask that everyone pay close attention to school funding for this year and next year. If we want to continue to provide high quality education we need to make sure that our legislators and Governor keep our children’s education essential.

10. What lessons have you and the school board learned?

This shutdown has provided a lot of logistical barriers to education. The biggest take-away that I have from this time is how difficult it is to get everyone (staff, parents, students) on the same page during uncertain times. I am very thankful for the patience that everyone has given the district and our plans. Overall we learned a lot of positives from our work. Specifically, our teachers working together to develop and deliver content as a grade level has been a huge success. We have also learned a lot about the delivery of content both in paper/pencil and online. Those lessons will play a major role if we need to do distance learning next year.

11. What will be done differently when school resumes as a result of all this?

You will see a heightened focus on good hygiene, personal space, and protocols for sick students next school year. We have always focused on cleaning and disinfecting buildings but we will see changes on how we do that, when we do it, and what equipment we utilize for this cleaning.

12. What will be long term effects of this shutdown on my kid?

Every student is different and will handle this shutdown differently. As a district we are concerned with and focused on the social/emotional well being of our students and possible academic loss due to this shutdown. When students return we will begin the process of assessing the impact and then developing supports for students. Over the past four years the district has developed a robust Multi-Tiered Systems of Supports for students. That work will pay off next year. We will develop supports where needed and when needed to help all of our students. If you have specific concerns for your child please reach out to their teacher(s) now for extra work and support. We are working on plans for summer work as well. When the school year starts next year make sure you let your child’s new teacher know of your concerns.

13. There are students who are more at risk because they are not in school. Have there been any targeted efforts to reach out and support them?

We have students who are at risk academically and emotionally. Each building principal has developed a team and process to make contact with these families. From the first day of our shutdown we have been making phone calls and parent/student contact. As we monitor student participation in distance learning we are making contact with those that are either not participating or minimally participating. Our admin, teachers, support staff, counselors, and behavior coaches are all making regular contact with their students. A continuous learning plan was developed for students who are currently on a 504 Plan or IEP. The CLP is designed to support students with specific needs through accommodations, resources and specialized instruction. Service providers (OT, PT, Speech, SSW, Title 1...) coordinate student resources and/or specialized instruction with parents and general education staff to provide meaningful and relevant curriculum. This curriculum is tailored to meet students who are at risk.

14. Will there be any school funding issues as a result of school not being in session for three months? What about moving forward if it happens again?

Any time the economy slows there is a decrease in tax revenue for the State of Michigan. That revenue funds our public schools. The forecasted revenue shortfall for this year is estimated to be between $1 - 3 billion and for next year $1 - 4 billion. To put that in perspective, every billion dollars in lost funding represents about $650 per student. For Portland that would be around $1.3 million reduction in revenue next year per billion dollar lost. So, it is safe to say that we will see a reduction in State Aid this year and we will definitely see a reduction next year. How much and when is debatable. The district has been fiscally responsible over the years and has enough funds to manage these cuts for a year without significant impact to the education that our students access. Beyond a year of these cuts and it gets difficult to prevent impact to the classroom. It is important for our schools that the economy picks up quickly once the Stay-at-Home order is lifted. It is also as critically important for our economy that our schools are operational and providing a quality product.

15. How can I as a parent be assured that when school opens again that my child will be safe from the Corona Virus?

This is an excellent question that I am spending numerous hours on Zoom meetings discussing these days. As with any communicable disease, there are measures that we can take to help prevent the spread but there are never any 100% guarantees. We will always follow the most recent guidelines and will not operate face-to-face instruction if we are not able to meet those guidelines. We will continue to sanitize the district regularly and work with our staff and students to teach proper hand washing and social distancing. We will encourage students, parents, and staff to immediately notify us of any concerns.

16. What should I as a parent be most prepared to deal with and concerned about when school resumes?

It will be important to monitor the health of your child daily. The days of sending a student with a fever to school are gone. If your child is sick, even if medication lowers their fever, they will not be allowed in school. We will need all families to follow guidance that we will provide at the start of the school year. By following this guidance you are helping your child and the children of others stay safe. Once we deal with the health concerns we will need to deal with disruptions to the normal flow of the district. You will most likely see changes to how we handle lunches, recess, parent pick up/drop off, field trips, and large group gatherings. That is not an exhaustive list and I am sure we will see other areas change as well. You will want to watch your child’s social/emotional and academic needs closely next year. Being out of school from March to August is a long time and most students will struggle to transition back to school. Keep the schools notified of your concerns immediately. We will work as a team with you to solve problems, remove barriers, and support your child.

17. Will there be Marching Band in the Fall?

As of right now, yes, but that is also subject to change. Any changes to camp, classes, and events will be communicated as soon as we know them.

18. Will there be high school football in 2020? Is there a possibility that it will be canceled or play a reduced schedule?

The MHSAA is going to need to make that decision. There is potential for a full season if the health concerns begin to reduce rapidly. I would caution people to think that we can quickly resume a schedule after the school year starts. Our student athlete safety is our primary concern. In order to do so we need to provide them with conditioning and practices so that they are safe on the playing field. It is a real possibility that we will see significant changes to all athletics next year. Football, being a contact sport with a large fan base, could see the most changes.

19. Your feeding kids during the closure has been awesome. Not a question. Good job to all involved.

Thank you. Our Chartwell’s and Transportation crew have been doing a great job. So far we have provided over 93,000 meals since our shutdown. That is a staggering number! We will continue to serve meals through June 30.

20. Will bussing resume as normal when students return to the classroom? How can I be assured my child will be protected while riding the bus?

Transportation is a critical service for a lot of our families. Our intent is to continue to provide transportation even if we need to run a blended model of instruction. We will work with the health department to determine the best guidance for transporting students. This will not be an easy task. Currently our buses can hold over 70 students. Depending on social distancing guidance we may need to limit that number to 26 students or less. This will make it extremely difficult. Once we have guidance we will develop a plan that provides transportation to as many families that we can safely.

21. We (parents) really liked Christine Rockey. What qualities are you looking for in a new High School Principal?

As I look at the current situation that we find ourselves in it is hard not to see the next High School principal being a strong leader with innovative ideas and the ability to solve problems quickly. As we look at the future our students are going to need less memorization and more problem solving abilities. How we educate students as well as the skills they need to enter the workforce is changing rapidly. The future of the High School will be dictated by the vision of its next leader. That vision will need to utilize the strengths of our students, staff, and community to ensure that we are producing graduates who are ready for their future. Some of those career paths do not even exist yet! It will be up to us to prepare our students for those paths.

22. What can be done from the district perspective to make sure every kid has the necessary technology and internet access for school work if this all happens again?

The district was able to provide Chromebooks for all families who requested a device. In all that was about 300 devices. If this happens again I am sure that we will need to send out more devices. I am pretty sure we can get anyone who needs a device as many students have devices at home. To go 1 to 1 with devices the district would need to purchase roughly one thousand new devices. The bigger concern is internet access and its quality. We have looked at various methods to send home wireless hotspots to students but the cost and quality isn’t effective. The State of Michigan is going to have to solve this problem if every student is going to have reliable internet at home. As a single district we do not have the capacity to push that change.

23. High School is so socially important. What can we all do to keep our kids and their friends involved with each other if extra-curricular events are canceled in fall?

If you are like me, you are probably tired of Zoom or other web based meetings, so I won’t give that answer. Without having the ability to have students on campus this will be nearly impossible. Our hope is that we will have students for at least part of the day or week. If this is possible we will do everything we can to work within the guidelines to provide safe situations for students to be social. I have the utmost confidence that our students will work with us to find ways to safely gather at school. When we are working together we will find ways to make this work.

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