How schools in Flint are following safe reopening guidelines while maintaining "family atmosphere"

Since March, local schools have had a difficult and occasionally near-impossible task in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. They’ve had to rush to come up with virtual learning plans, have them ready to be implemented by the start of the 2020-21 school year, and make sure that the educational needs of extremely diverse groups of learners are met by those plans.


When schools moved to remote learning in late March, parents, teachers, and children were forced to adapt. In Flint, where nearly 70% of young children live in poverty, this transition was challenging because many families lack access to technology. But Flint Community Schools Superintendent Anita Steward is confident the district is in a much better place to address the needs of students, whether they opt to continue remote learning or return to the classroom.


“While schools across the country were forced to adapt overnight in the spring, we have now had the opportunity to plan ahead for remote learning in the 2020-21 school year,” Steward said. “We have collected feedback from parents, staff, and students regarding the remote learning experience, and have used that feedback to improve the process for the year ahead. We appreciate the dedication of our staff members to continued student learning — regardless of medium.”


Flint Community Schools students returned to class virtually on August 5, with in-person classes set to resume on September 14. Called the Safe Return and Recovery Plan, both remote and in-person options aim to ensure students’ safety and educational needs are met.


“Our plan is centered around a safe reopening of Flint Community Schools, designed to protect the health and well-being of our school community while maintaining a commitment to excellence in academics, transparent communications and a whole child approach to education,” Steward said. “I am grateful for the diverse group of administrators, teachers, paraprofessionals, Board of Education members, community partners and parents who came together to help us develop this comprehensive plan. Despite the ever-changing circumstances, I am confident we will be ready to provide our students with a high-quality education and the wraparound support they rely on in the fall.”


For in-person learning Flint Community Schools retains the traditional approach to student learning but will require all students and staff to wear face coverings unless they are medically unable to or during meals. Under Phase 4 of the state’s plan, there are no required protocols for class size, spacing, or movement limitations.


Bus transportation will be available, but the number of riders may be reduced day-to-day and students may be assigned to seats. Sanitizer will be available when students enter the bus and buses will be sanitized between routes each day, with deep cleaning daily.


In the remote learning plan, the basic outline remains the same, but this time around teachers and administrators had more time to adjust, prepare, and fine-tune their curriculum.


Unique to Flint Community Schools and reflective of the district’s commitment to Community Education are protocols included in the Safe Return and Recovery Plan for Whole Child and Family Support in each of the potential learning environments regardless of which school option families choose or if schools are forced to return to solely remote learning.


Protocols include MTSS district coordinator and social worker-established guidelines to centralize mental health referrals, communications to families/students, and public-facing wellness materials. It also includes a comprehensive crisis management plan that leverages available internal and external/community-based resources, which can be activated as needed for the Crisis Response Team and MERT teams.


Sheri Meltzer of Flint has decided to keep her daughter, Mari, who is entering second grade, at home and is still trying to find the right fit for online homeschooling. For Meltzer, who survived her own bout with COVID-19, the reasoning behind her decision is deeply personal.


“My family is the reason I chose remote school this year,” she said. “The thought of my mother getting sick because she picks Mari up from school is what ultimately made me not second guess the decision to choose e-learning. We are finally to the point where we can be with our parents and siblings but if she went to school that would change because of the possibility of her becoming sick or being a carrier. Of course there are more reasons but that really made up my mind about it.”


St. John Vianney Catholic School is a private school in Flint adhering to the state’s return to school plan as well as doing their best to go above and beyond to assure the safety and well-being of their students.


The school’s back to school packet lays out a few key differences from the district in general, one being the option to switch from remote to in-person by semester. So if you enroll your child virtually, you have the opportunity to change that to in-person after the completion of each semester.


Students in junior kindergarten through fourth grades will have a weekly online session with their teacher so parents can discuss and get help with lessons, said Dr. Theresa Marshall, principal of St. John Vianney. The student will also get one-on-one assistance with the classroom paraprofessional. Any in-person teaching will be recorded as well.


“All the face-to-face core instructions by the teacher will be taped and uploaded to the student's Google classroom site,” Marshall said. “The homework and subject work will be posted there as well. Any links such as SeeSaw or other sites will be posted for online students to their weekly lessons and the Google classroom as well.”


Students in fifth through eighth grades who choose a virtual option will use the teachers and curriculum from the county-encompassing Genesee County Catholic School system while remaining students of SJV. This means even though they are attending online school through a broader system they will still be included in all communications from the administration and be able to take part in extracurricular activities (such as clubs and sports when they become available), religious events, and fundraisers.


Shannon Strocel Ash, who teaches nursing for University of Michigan-Flint, has no qualms about sending her eighth-grader back to school.


“I am so very impressed with the 41-page back to school plan that St. John Vianney Catholic School in Flint has prepared,” Ash said. “It is obvious that a great deal of research and hard work went into the formulation of the plan and document. I have no hesitations in sending my child back at the end of August with this plan in place. It is so apparent the love and concern that these educators have for the children.”


Fifth-grade teacher Mary Clark is ready for any scenario.


“This past spring taught me things can change in the blink of an eye, so I want to be as prepared as possible to adjust my teaching as needed,” she said. “I want my classroom to feel as ‘normal’ as possible with the guidelines in place. Even though we will be practicing social distancing, I still want my classroom to feel like home away from home. I want (students) to feel like they can accomplish anything when they walk in the doors of our classroom, so I’m putting in the same effort to make it a special place, just as I would have in past years. Our desks may be spaced farther apart, but we will still have a family-like atmosphere.”

This is part of a series showing how COVID-19 has challenged Flint organizations that deliver education services to be innovative in an effort to ensure virtual learning tools and resources are available to students from all economic backgrounds. It is made possible with funding from Google's Journalism Emergency Relief Fund.

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Read more articles by Ashley Schafer.