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Schools are working hard to keep up

In these unprecedented times where everything at the national, state, and local levels is changing on a moment’s notice, it is easy for us all to feel that we are not fully informed about the facts. That is even happening to school district leaders. Unfortunately, we also have many unanswered questions. The purpose of this communication is to provide as much information as currently possible regarding what is and is not happening with public education in our state and in our region. Please note that those of us who are leading school districts regret that we are not able to provide answers to all of the questions that have been asked by students, parents, and staff members. It is our sincere hope that as the days move forward, we will be provided with the answers to those questions and, of course, when we receive those answers we will keep everyone fully informed. In the meantime, we are requesting your patience and understanding.

To give you a sense of where we are at this time, here is what has happened over the past 10 days. On Thursday, March 12, all of the local superintendents, along with representatives from the Copper Country Christian school and Sacred Heart school, met at the Copper Country Intermediate School District (CCISD) with our local Health Department officials. We had a great discussion about how we should proceed given the current COVID-19 crisis. Based on the information available at that time from the Health Department, we agreed we would keep schools open, but stop all after school and extra-curricular activities. We all agreed to send out the same letter to all families within the Copper Country. This was to be a great example of collaboration to send a consistent message. Unfortunately, at 11:00 pm on that same Thursday, the Governor held a press conference to shut down schools for the next 3 weeks. There was no warning that this announcement was coming. The letter that our school officials had created was not sent out to parents as planned.

Once the Governor declared a shutdown of K-12 schools, the Governor’s office and the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) gave schools one directive: to feed kids. I am happy to report that all of our local schools stepped up to the challenge and put together food bags for students that were available beginning last week and will be available every week during the current shutdown. In Houghton County, the local schools also coordinated with 31 Backpacks to pick up and deliver extra food to those who are in the most need. It was a big success.

During this same time, ISDs across Michigan were tasked with creating a blueprint of childcare needs for our community’s essential personnel, like our medical professionals, hospital workers and EMS. There were several statewide meetings between all 56 ISD superintendents, the Governor’s office and the Michigan Department of Education (MDE). By the end of the week, the CCISD was able to create a list of all daycares in our area, the ages they serve and the current number of available slots. This information has been shared with our local hospitals and clinics. As of right now, there are many available childcare slots available, but should there be a future need for childcare for our essential personnel, the ISD is preparing to help open emergency daycare venues, most likely in some schools.

I know many in the public are asking what schools are doing to help education continue. The answers are not easy for us, as we are given mixed messages. Many schools have sent out communications to parents about free on-line materials that students can use to keep their minds engaged. Many schools have put together physical packets of material for families to pick up and take home for students to work on. It is important for the public to know that we have been told that such materials must be considered enrichment activities and not mandatory. We have been given guidance from our school lawyers that unless a school can provide ALL students with everything they need to learn, then anything we provide cannot count toward instruction. In fact, the MDE released a statement directing that any online work or packets completed during this official shutdown will NOT count as instructional time. The reason has to do with equity. Can our schools reach and adequately serve every student at this time? No. Not every student has a computer, not every student has internet access, and some students need special assistance. Unless we can guarantee these things, we would not be treating all our students the same.

To complicate matters, on Friday, March 20, the Governor released her own statement saying she was disappointed in the MDE memo that said online instruction would not count as instructional time. As local school administrators, we are stuck in the middle. If there has been a lack of communication with the public, it is not because we do not want to provide you with more information, it is because we don’t want to put something out that changes 10 hours later.

As of right now, with the mandatory school shutdown happening during a time that our schools had a scheduled break and the fact that we have only had 3 snow days this year, we are currently looking at the same amount of missed days as last year due to the polar vortex and many big storms. We do realize, however, that many think that the shutdown of the schools will likely last longer. Will we need to make up some time in June? Will we create some sort of combination of online classes with some old fashioned mailed out correspondence? I cannot say as I write this article. But I can tell you that all of your local school officials will be working together to problem solve the best we can.

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