SWARTZ CREEK — In the Swartz Creek Community Schools, 2021 will be the year that district officials and residents put on their thinking caps and craft a vision that will guide the district well into the future.
COVID, of course, will weigh heavily in the decisions ahead, with a major challenge unique to our time being the learning gap that exists because of the pandemic, said Superintendent Ben Mainka.
District officials will consider the benefits and disadvantages of a whole host of strategies for closing the gap, and some of the discussion will center on the possibility of year-round school.
“I wouldn’t say we’re going to have a balanced calendar,” Mainka said. “But it’s certainly something that’s on the table – the calendar and the frequency we meet, all of those things. There are a lot of different ways to address the learning gaps. There is certainly no formal or immediate discussion … but it’s probably part of a larger conversation.
“We will do a comprehensive study. We know COVID left us with some gaps in terms of kids who have missed some instruction or who have been in settings that were not optimal for them. So, how do we break down the gaps that exist? We will look at different types of programming. That becomes probably our top priority and focus for 2021.”
When the COVID shutdown hit last March, school districts shifted to online learning.
“We did the best we could and I think we did quite well, but it was not optimal,” said Mainka. “A lot of kids lost a lot of instruction time.”
The data is showing gaps in all three learning modalities – face-to-face, online and hybrid, he said. It’s a trend seen across the country. Of greatest concern, however, is the online group.
“We know, as we look across the board, we are not able to see the same gains we would normally see in a year,” Mainka explained.
But as for the online students, only “a small percentage thrive in that environment,” Mainka said. As a result, the gap is a source of great concern.
“There is not a good, universal substitute for a teacher in a classroom with the kids,” he said.
In addition to addressing the learning gap, district leaders will look at setting some long-term goals, and overhauling some district policies, in the new year.
“We really want to get into developing a comprehensive strategic plan,” Mainka said. “It’s not something Swartz Creek has done before.
“It involves the Board of Education working with the stakeholders in the district (parents and residents) and those we serve. We’re looking at trying to develop that plan this year so we have something, moving forward, to show where we’re going and what we’re trying to accomplish.”
In a similar vein, administrators and elected officials will review and update the policies.
“We will dive in deep and do an overhaul this year,” said Mainka. “One of the primary roles of the Board of Education is developing policy. So, we’re going to go through a more comprehensive review of the policies and refresh of all of them, which deals with a lot of things in our current times: COVID, MIOSHA, things surrounding different types of drugs and substances and all of the different things that impact our policies.”
Perhaps a high point in the coming months will be the completion of the bond projects, which appears to be on schedule and under budget.
“This is going to be our biggest year of construction with the Middle School and High School getting underway and breaking ground,” Mainka said.
Projects also include a lot of site work, meaning work on the parking lots at Dieck and Morrish Elementary schools, and some site work at Gaines Elementary.
“There are still some projects to be done around the district, but the Middle School and High School will take center stage,” Mainka said.
There is quite a lot of work to do at those schools, including getting the STEAM additions up and running, creating new entrances and front offices, and installing safety and security devices such as cameras and digital locking systems.
New parking lots, air conditioning, and interior finishes will be completed. At the High School, locker room renovations will be done and one wing of the building will be connected back to the Performing Arts Center.
“So, there is a lot going on commencing in the spring and finishing the following year,” Mainka said.
Throughout the year, the primary goal is, as it was in 2020, to regain a sense of normalcy and familiarity.
“I think everyone is eager and anticipating a hope for getting back to some sense of normal,” Mainka said. “The vaccine will be coming out, which gives us hope. But, by and large, I think people are ready to put 2020 behind us.”