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School districts face challenges as they plan for Fall semester

"Arguably the single greatest challenge our schools in this country have ever faced."

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — School districts are faced with the tough decision of how to return to school in the fall. The governor's Return to School Roadmap gave recommendations, but now it's up to the schools to make their plan. 

RELATED: Gov. Whitmer announces plan for reopening schools in the fall

Grand Rapids Public Schools (GRPS) plans to release their recommendations on July 27. Then, the plan is to gather feedback, and the Academic Achievement Committee will present to the Board of Education on Aug. 5. 

John Helmholdt, the executive director of communications for GRPS, spoke to 13 ON YOUR SIDE about the factors that staff are considering in their decision making process. That plan must include recommendations for in-person learning, online-learning and a hybrid of the two. 

"If we were to go back in-person or a hybrid, there are going to be families that simply will not send their child to an in-person setting," said Helmholdt, "So, we knew that we need to offer a 100% virtual school choice opportunity."

While there are a lot of factors to consider, safety remains top priority. For in-person learning, one big challenge is figuring out how to safely distance students and staff in buildings. In the meantime, the district is gearing up on personal protective equipment (PPE), and things like hand sanitizer and cleaning equipment. 

"We are a 150 year old institution," said Helmholdt, "We have buildings that were not designed for the social distancing requirements. Those are the concerns around how do we safely implement a return to in-person instruction?"

Online learning poses its own set of challenges. For one, that's making sure each student has access to a device and network connectivity. Helmholdt said GRPS is prepared to roll out one-to-one devices, as well as internet access for all students. Those have been funded through philanthropic community help and re-purposing existing devices from a bond in 2015. 

One concern with online learning is also the quality of the curriculum. Kevin Polston, the superintendent for Godfrey-Lee Public Schools, said that's top of mind. 

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"Because the level of learning that occurred this Spring, albeit in the middle of a pandemic and everyone's doing the best they could, wasn't up to the level that we need to continue," said Polston, "We know we need to support our students stronger. We know we need to support our families with more tools to be able to support their children at home. We know we need to give more professional learning for our educators."

Polston was on the governor's Return to Learn Advisory Council. He said the council was an honor to be on. Now, the challenge is to take those recommendations and implement them in the school's plan. 

Godfrey-Lee has also not yet announced their plan for the Fall. 

He pointed out that much of a child's schooling is expansive beyond just academics. Teachers become mentors, and extracurricular activities can let a student's talents shine. 

"I think the first challenge is that we're in the relationships business, and to put people six feet apart, really can impact the relationships that we create," said Polston. "Sometimes it's a handshake, sometimes it's a warm hug, sometimes it's a caring educator, shoulder to shoulder with a student helping to problem solve a difficult problem. And so it really impairs our ability to create those deep, meaningful relationships, which we know are key levers for high levels of learning.

RELATED: Coopersville teachers prepare to head back to the classroom

Since schools closed in March, Polston said the district continued to give out meals to students. This also highlights another challenge for districts. Many students rely upon those meals they get at school. Plus, special education teachers and students rely on more in-person style of teaching. 

"Our special education students that require occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy are essential services that go into their quality of life and their well being," said Polston, "They weren't getting to the level that we could deliver in-person. That's significant."

Meanwhile, Lansing Public Schools decided to move their first marking period in the Fall online. They are calling the program, "screen-to-screen." While many districts, like GRPS and Godfrey-Lee, are still working through their options, Lansing felt it was time to make a plan. 

"We felt it was important for our families to be prepared for what's next," said Sam Sinicropi, Superintendent of Lansing Schools, "It also would allow us to spend more time planning to put some things together."

The district is looking at a few options to make screen-to-screen learning possible. Sinicropi said for them, that means kids would be working with multiple teachers and staff throughout the day, virtually. 

While the first nine weeks of school will be online, the schools are still working out how that will work for every student and every grade. In the meantime, they are having similar conversations as West Michigan schools for when in-person learning will resume. 

RELATED: Michigan High School Athletic Association plans to resume sports in the fall

"I've never had a decision to make that had the ramifications that this has right now," said Sinicropi, "We need to do much more for our students than with all the other things that we're facing right now in this world. It's hard. It's a hard decision. We're trying to balance so that we can help our kids and help our families. We're going to do a lot of training with our staff to help them get to where they would like to be."

Sinicropi said reaction to the online plan has been mixed from parents. Some parents are glad their students will not be in face-to-face instruction. However, other parents are concerned about their ability to maintain the online learning while working. 

Helmholdt said whatever the recommendations for GRPS will look like, there will be room for improvement and modifications as time goes on. 

"(This is) arguably the single greatest challenge our schools in this country have ever faced," said Helmholdt, "I mean, this is all new. Everyone's doing what they can to prepare for every possible scenario. But this also comes in the midst of the single largest budget cut that we have faced in our history."

He asks parents to complete a survey on their website, in which feedback will be used to create their plan. 

"We deeply care about each and every member of our school family, and the decisions we make will be imperfect," said Polston, "These are imperfect times, and we're going to learn as we go. So allow us some grace as we work through this."

RELATED VIDEO: Michigan High School Athletic Association plans to resume sports in the fall

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