Reaction mixed as board delays start of in-person school option

GRAND BLANC — The Grand Blanc Community Schools Board of Education has delayed the start of the 2020-21 school year and temporarily suspended in-school instruction.

Parents had until Aug. 19 to choose between a remote or virtual learning format when school begins Sept. 8.

The remote model will provide real-time group instruction for three hours per day, as well as additional learning options that students may do on their own time. Parents who selected the remote format will have the opportunity to send their children to school if in-person learning is reinstated before the end of the first semester.

The virtual format allows students to continue their education online fully on their own time. Those students will not be able to return to the classroom, should that option become available, until the second semester begins in January.

The board’s decision came on the heels of new Genesee County Health Department guidelines for responding to COVID-19 in the schools.

“My sole objective is to get us back to school as safely and as consistently as possible,” said Superintendent Clarence Garner.

Originally, classes were to resume Aug. 31 in a hybrid model in which half of the students would have in-person instruction Mondays and Thursdays, and half on Tuesdays and Fridays. On the off days, students would have remote learning.

Under the Health Department guidelines, which are stricter than the State of Michigan’s Return to School Roadmap and Centers for Disease Control guidelines, if there is a suspected case of COVID-19 in a classroom, that classroom would have to close, and students quarantine, for up to 10 days. At the secondary level, where students move among three classrooms, all three would have to shut down.

Garner said the hybrid program “doesn’t have the flexibility for constant disruptions that will happen.

“We will have staff and students with symptoms, we will have confirmed cases, and we will be opening and closing our classes at a moment’s notice based on the guidelines,” Garner said. “Families will have to be prepared daily for us to close and move to a virtual status. It will not be consistent.”

Administrators will re-evaluate the decision monthly based on Health Department regulations.

The 7-0 decision drew mixed reactions from some of the 750-plus parents who attended the meeting, either in person following safety standards, or online via Zoom.

Parent Kelly Cradit remarked that her children’s mental health, and her own, “trumps all the statistics.”

“Everything aside, our kids are worth giving it a try,” she said. “Just try. See what the classroom is going to be like. It’s worth it to all of us, to our health, to their education. Please. It sounds like your minds are already made up tonight, but please, please just consider trying it. Just try it.”

Parent Lauren Fischer urged the board to give the parents the option of sending their kids to school.

“The CDC recommends kids go back to school,” Fischer said. “I don’t know why we wouldn’t have that as an option. Besides the structure and socialization in meaningful daily activity, some kids just don’t learn online. I think it’s ridiculous we aren’t even given an option for them to go in-person.”

Grand Blanc High School Senior Abby Jablonski spoke in favor of the off-site learning models, saying, “structured, remote learning ensures the safety of both staff and students.”

“There is no way we are going to get the education we need if we go back in person,” she said, adding that teachers and students will have to concern themselves with handwashing, masks and social distancing, and watch out for symptoms.

In addition, shutdowns, she said, will be disruptive, and the risk is too high a price for exposing peers and teachers to the virus.

“Why are we trying to justify the possibility of hurting and damaging peers all for two days a week?” she asked.

Dr. Melanie Pendergrass, a parent, also offered her support. She said the quick action in closing the schools in the spring likely had a dramatic effect on slowing the spread of the virus among children, which is reflected in the statistics.

One thing is certain, she said, someone will get COVID; the board must consider how that will impact students’ mental health, especially if that person dies.

“Until we can guarantee a safe place for learning, keep them where they are most safe, at home,” Pendergrass said.

School board Trustee James Avery said the decision was “very tough,” and he acknowledged that students’ social/emotional learning will take a hit.

“But in the end, we have to be consistent and make sure it’s going to work,” he said. “We have to make sure our students are not going to be deprived of their education.”

School board Vice President Martin Ray agreed, adding, “Our hybrid plan, at this time, is hard to sustain. Every day, we are reminded that this is not ideal. But right now, we have to have a sustainable, productive, uninterrupted educational experience for our students.”