Houghton looks to provide safe learning environment

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette Houghton High School band members rehearse Thursday morning. In keeping with recommendations, class is being held outside or in the auditorium, to allow for more distance. Students also wear special masks that can be closed when not playing.

HOUGHTON — So far, students are adjusting well to their return back to school, Superintendent Doreen Kramer said Thursday.

“They’re doing a really nice job, being responsible and wearing their masks in the hallways, and when talking to others,” Kramer said. “They’re also wearing them in the classrooms.”

Houghton-Portage Township Schools and other districts in Houghton County opened back up for in-person instruction Tuesday.

In setting classes up, Kelly Fontaine and other music teachers across the country have been looking to a Colorado State University study on aerosol emissions. Instead of the music room, Houghton band classes are held outside and in the auditorium. Most instruments are six feet apart. Trombones are nine feet — the length of a fully extended slide. They’ve been temporarily moved to the front row.

Band students also have customized masks with a hole in the middle that allows them to play, and can be closed with Velcro. Instruments also received bell covers, while the chairs and stands are sanitized.

“Everything they have told us we have done, just so we can play,” Fontaine said.

Despite being told they wouldn’t be able to perform at fall sports, the band held a camp in summer. About 75% of the students attended, Fontaine said.

With Michigan’s decision earlier this week to allow fall sports, the band is getting ready for this Saturday’s football game.

“Our first game will just be in the stands, because we haven’t started to drill yet,” Fontaine said.

Band has gone well, said Leah Berkey, an 11th-grade euphonium player. She said she chose returning to school over remote learning because she learns best in-person.

The biggest difference from normal has been the masks, she said.

“We’re doing everything we can to follow all the regulations,” she said. “We’re keeping our distance. We’ve got masks on. It’s different.”

Outside of classes, students are able to take off masks during lunch, physical education classes and specific activities during which they can take mask breaks, Kramer said.

To reduce contact on common surfaces, students are asked to fill disposable cups rather than drink directly from fountains.

The doors on the luncheon have a self-cleaning strip where they are pushed, which lasts for months, Kramer said. Lunch seating has also been spread out to other locations, including the library.

About 20% of students in Houghton are taking classes remotely district-wide, with similar numbers at the elementary and middle-high schools, Kramer said.

“That has opened up a lot of our classrooms to have less students in there, so we’re able to space out more than we’ve typically been doing,” she said.

Unlike the spring, where teachers had to scramble to prepare a curriculum, the one being used for students at home is the same as in the classroom, Kramer said.

At the elementary school, four elementary teachers are dedicated to online teaching. At the middle and high schools, teachers use cameras so students follow along at home. They then meet with the students on google Meets after class to answer any questions they might have, Kramer said.

High school students at home are taking the same classes or a modified version through the Edgenuity platform, Principal Cole Klein said.

“The plan is for them to be on pace and on track with face-to-face students so that they’re able to rejoin face-to-face classes when ready,” he said.

Counting students at home, the district’s enrollment is around 1,402, down from an average of 1,450.

“We were projected to be down around 25 students, so it’s 25 more than we thought, but given the situation, we feel like that’s a pretty good attendance number for us this year,” Kramer said.

There are no assemblies planned for right now, though Kramer said meeting in smaller groups might happen later in the year. Even without pep rallies or other large gatherings, the students are providing a sense of community through their excitement in being back, Kramer said.

“That’s a foreign thing for us, to be remote teaching,” she said. “Schools are built to be social, to have students in the building. That’s where we’re comfortable. That’s where a lot of learning takes place, is being together.”

Kramer said she is using the same measure for success this year as any other year.

“We have kids that are here learning, we have our benchmarks, we have our curriculum … We want kids to succeed, and we want to provide them with an excellent education in a safe environment,” she said. “That’s always been the goal. We’ll just have to work with the situation that everyone is working with in the nation.”


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