A good start: New COVID-19 school year begins well for Cass City

The new school year opened Aug. 24 for Cass City Public Schools.

And the start went pretty well.

In reports given to the school board at its meeting that night, district staff spoke about what they had seen and learned and what steps were being taken to keep school in session, after a six-month hiatus on in-person instruction brought on by the COVID-19 outbreak. That not only closed schools to all but online learning, it also closed the state and large parts of the nation down as well.

Elementary principal Aaron Fernald said the opening day at the elementary went well, with a few glitches to fix.

That was echoed by junior/senior high principal Chad Daniels.

“I thought it went really well,” he said. “That’s a tribute to the staff and the parents, and the kids being cooperative.”

“I spent most of the day here at the high school and I was just really proud of our kids,” Superintendent Jeff Hartel said. “I just thought those kids just really wanted to be in school.”

Some students were lost to home-schooling, Hartel said, because of COVID-19 concerns. “It is understandable. People are just unsure what to do right now.”

The district is down 40 students from last fall, with about 18 percent of those returning opting for online classes.

Last fall the elementary had 523 students. A student was added in the winter. As of Aug. 24, the school had 487 students – 403 of them in school and the rest online only. The junior/senior high school had 473 students last fall, 466 in the winter and 469 when school opened on Aug. 24. Of those, 379 were in school.

“I think that is quite good,” Hartel said. “I was expecting it would be higher than that.”

He said he thinks some parents chose to homeschool their children after the experience of last spring’s online education program. “We didn’t know what we were doing,” he said. “It was thrown on(line) at the last minute. I think they haven’t realized the improvements we’ve made since last March. We are hoping we are going to see some of those people come back. But I can’t promise that.”

What parents don’t understand, he said, is that students taking online classes still can participate in band, sports and other extracurriculars. They also can take advantage of the Cass City Promise, which sets aside money for each student to use for post-graduate education. They also will be served by the district’s food program.

The ability to serve the online students has some challenges. District officials originally considered using flash drives to help deliver assignments home to students without internet service. But with so much of those components being online, technology director Lyle Severance said, they are looking to create wi-fi hotspots to support families without home internet.

“Just a small number don’t have internet at home,” he said. “We are not talking about a huge number. I think that is a better solution all around.”

The hotspots would cost the district about $20 a month, he said, plus the cost of the device. Hartel said probably fewer than 50 students would need the hotspot.

The hotspots are dependent on cell phone coverage, Severance said, “and there are going to be areas that just do not support hotspot usage. Again, there might only be one per building, but we still have to be thinking about that and be ready when that does happen.”

The solution, Hartel said, could mean setting up a wi-fi hotspot in a nearby church, which has offered its services.

“We are trying to figure that aspect out,” he said.

Severance said the district also is challenged taking care of the both the online and in-school students. The goal is to have a computer or tablet for every grade 3-12 student to use, but the district has ordered 240 Chromebooks – a laptop or tablet primarily used to perform a variety of tasks using the Google Chrome browser, with most applications and data residing in the cloud rather than on the machine itself – for the high school, due to arrive in September. “That is the last component needed for us to be one-to-one,” he said.

Grades 7-12 will be allowed to take their machines home with them.

“As soon as we get these 240 Chromebooks in, it is a go,” Hartel said.

The district opened the school year, however, with two students out, under quarantine. School officials are relying on parents to monitor the health of their children and act accordingly.

“It is going to require very good communication with all of the parents,” nurse Kathy LaPonsie said. “Really I just hope parents keep their kids home if the kids are not feeling well. Just keep them home until their symptoms are better so that we can keep our kids in school as long as possible.”

For those who show COVID-19 symptoms while at school, LaPonsie said the district has set up sick rooms, or quarantine rooms, at each school. Each can house three students at a time, keeping them six feet apart. A solid barrier is placed between each of them. ”If kids are exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19,” she said, “we can keep them as isolated as possible from each other.”

The information on each student is kept on a spreadsheet that is shared with the principals and teachers so everyone knows who is supposed to be in school and who is out.

Since this also is allergy season and the district can’t require a student or staff member get tested for COVID-19 when they show symptoms, she said they are asking parents to get a doctor’s note if the problem is allergies.

“We will be talking to the health department quite frequently,” she said.

Those who do attend school in person are being asked to help keep everyone safe. Each student, upon entering a classroom, takes a wipe pre-moistened with a hydrogen-peroxide-based cleaning product and wipes down their desk and chair. Spray bottles of the solution also are provided to each classroom so staff can do a little extra sanitizing, as needed.

Forty gallons of hand sanitizer, in five-gallon buckets, has been divided into several smaller bottles and spread around to classrooms.

In between classes, lockers and doors are getting misted with the hydrogen-peroxide solution. High-touch area are getting wiped down six to eight times a day.

Hartel said the district also hired an additional worker to do nothing but clean for four hours each day.

“It is one of those things,” he said. “You can’t be too cautious at this point.”

Evidence of that effort comes in the delivery of meals. At the junior/senior high school, students order what they want during their first hour then those meals get delivered at lunchtime to their classrooms. Grades 2-6 are eating in the cafeteria in what food service director Shari Bock called “pods,” while lunches are delivered to grades K-1 in their classrooms.

“The students in each classroom are still with their classrooms,” LaPonsie said. The same is true on the playground. “So they are still staying in their cohort.”

Online students are picking up their meals after school, either during the day or in the evening on Wednesdays. They will get two meals for every day school is in session.

COVID-19 efforts also are applied to busing. Each bus has daily and weekly cleaning guidelines, posted on a laminated sheet in each bus. The guidelines are the same as those used by the Saginaw Intermediate School District.

“It is just nice to have a go-to sheet to look at to know what you have to clean and what you have to maintain,” transportation director Rita Hanby said.

Students are given assigned seats and, for now, the buses travel with the windows down to improve circulation and limit any COVID-19 exposure to students or drivers. The assigned seating allows staff to track those near any student who might wind up sick with the virus.

“It was really hard for the buses to sit for five months,” Hanby said, noting two of eight buses sent out on the opening day broke down and had to be towed in for service. “And some of our vehicles are old, so they are going to be fragile.”

They still are awaiting delivery of two new buses, which are expected soon.

The board also:

• Hired Kyle Pine as a fourth-grade teacher and Robin Keine as a sixth-grade teacher.

• Accepted the resignation of fourth-grade teacher Corey Cotton, with regret.

Mark Haney is a staff writer for The Advertiser. He can be reached at haney@tcadvertiser.com.

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