By Megan Kelley
The Lake Orion Community School’s Board of Education meeting on Aug. 12 had a clear shift in energy from the beginning when it was revealed that the board had received 16 public participation emails, far more than the district traditionally receives.
Each email centered around the same thing: the return to school plan in the fall.
LOCS is set to begin the fall semester remotely on Sept. 8.
In July, the school district announced plans to offer both an in-person and an online learning option for students during the fall semester.
However, last week the district took a sharp turn when the school board voted unanimously to forego that plan in favor of a fully remote start plan.
While a few public comments were encouraging to the board, some took a harsher tone, demanding that the district continue forward with their two options (in-person and Dragon Virtual) and allow parents to make the decision they feel is best for their child.
“I appreciate all the feedback that we’ve received over the past three and a half weeks, that’s how long I’ve been here in the district, and there was a lot of work completed prior to me coming here, but I definitely appreciate all of the public participation we had,” Superintendent Ben Kirby said. “This obviously has been a very challenging time. I think if I had $100 for every time someone told me that they wouldn’t want my position right now, we probably could build a new school facility.”
School districts across the nation now find themselves in a precarious situation in deciding how to open school back up for their students in the fall.
In Oakland County, a majority of school districts have opted for a fully online or remote learning start option, including Clarkston Community Schools, Bloomfield Hills Community Schools, Rochester Community Schools and more.
Lake Orion’s neighbor to the north, Oxford Community Schools, however, is in the minority of districts that is still planning on offering both in-person and online options.
The conversation in Lake Orion comes on the heels of news reports that several school districts across the country — in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Indiana — have had to quarantine a number of staff and students because of positive cases of COVID-19.
The day before the board held its meeting, on Aug. 11, CNN reported information from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association that showed a 90 percent increase in COVID-19 cases among children.
“The return to school decision, that I know all schools are faced with, is really a difficult one and it really impacts students. It impacts employees, the parents that the students go home to, as well as the community in which they live, as well as the community in which our staff live,” Kirby said. “Ultimately, we want to get students back to school and I think it’s very important to understand that we’re making decisions based on the health, safety and the education of our students.”
On Aug. 6, LOCS received a document from the Oakland County Health Division regarding the opening of schools, Kirby said. In this document, Kirby explained that one of the things the district would be expected to handle is contact tracing and because testing can take four to six days, that makes contact tracing much more difficult.
“When I look at the data across Oakland County, we’ve really maintained or increased, when I look at the ZIP code data, and I think that’s really important to understand where we’re at in our community, but there have been increases and I think that’s really important to understand,” said Kirby. “We’ve had medical providers…we’ve heard that via email or phone calls and we’ve actually heard both sides. Again, that leads to the confusion as educators that we have to make these decisions for our students and our employees. There isn’t a consistent message and that is very difficult for us when we’re putting forth our recommendations.”
Kirby himself has been meeting weekly with county superintendents to discuss all of these factors and to share data. Decisions made at universities and major colleges have also been evaluated by the district.
Additionally, the many executive orders issued by Governor Gretchen Whitmer have taken it’s toll on this district as well.
“We’ve had a number of executive orders. I’ve kind of lost count, we’re over 160, I know that. But it has been a challenge to continue to monitor the expectations and the guidance; we certainly continue to do that,” Kirby said. “Recently, there was the change to a limit of 10 (people) indoors except for schools. I’m not sure why that exception was made, but if you look at what the work force across our state is doing, remote work is being recommended.”
With all of these factors in mind, Kirby made his recommendation to begin the school year with remote instruction through Nov. 6 with plans to reevaluate and make a decision by Oct. 16 if LOCS can resume in-person instruction on Nov. 9.
This decision essentially puts both the in-person option and Dragon Virtual on hold with all students learning remotely until at least Nov. 6.
“One of my primary roles is to keep staff and students safe. We don’t feel like we can do that in an in-person format. We can’t appropriately social distance. There’s 20 to 30 students in a classroom with one adult for up to six hours at a time and it’s just very challenging to be able to do the social distancing that’s expected, student’s wearing masks for six-plus hours a day, that is a difficult challenge,” said Kirby. “When we look at what our families expect for in person (education), it isn’t going to look, if we were to start on Sept. 8, it would not look like they would expect with all of the increased safety measures that we would have to put into place.”
This remote plan, however, does not mean that students will not be allowed in district buildings. The district is hoping to have small group orientations with teachers and students.
During the board meeting on July 22, the district announced that all high school students would be receiving a district-issued computer device. During the Aug. 12 meeting, the district announced that it would be providing all students from grades Developmental Kindergarten through 12th grade with devices. DK through 2nd grade will receive iPads and grades 3 through 12 will be receiving laptops. How these will be distributed is expected to be announced, along with other details, at a later date.
As far as Special Education goes, Kirby ensured that plans were being put into place for these students and he anticipates that the district will be able to bring some of these students back to school in an in-person setting more frequently. More details on this are expected soon.
Board members spent a good deal of time asking questions and providing additional rationale before unanimously voting to begin the fall semester with remote learning.
“Some of the in-person desires that people have, I hope they’ve factored in those differences,” Singer said. “When someone has a booboo that isn’t an injury but they need to feel safe, they need to feel reassured, that teacher now has to make a decision, ‘Do I violate social distancing and go get right in the face and give that kid the comfort they need?’ or ‘Do I stand six feet away and say ‘it’ll be ok’?’ That’s not the greatest decision to have to make and that’s the kind of thing we’d be asking.”
In closing comments, it was clear that the decision weighed heavily on the LOCS board members.
“Someone recently asked us what keeps us up at night. Over the years, we’ve had the opportunity to make some very heavy-lifting decisions as a board — many of those have kept several of us awake at night but none, for me, have played out like this scenario with this pandemic. It’s been keeping me up at night and it’s been filling my days as I researched, read, listened to experts, received information from local pediatricians, spoken with parents, teachers, students, staff, other board members in Oakland County and throughout the state. I keep trying to learn from others and what they’re doing,” Vice President Birgit McQuistion said. “I knew tonight was going to be a bit difficult because no matter what we do, someone is going to be mad, sad or angry. It’s the nature of being on the board of education, there are many decisions in which it is impossible to please everyone.
“We all bleed green, we’re all Dragon strong…and I want to choose joy. I want to choose the positivity in this and I want to look for the opportunity to shine and grow and excel in every way we can for the sake of our students and the sake of our staff and ultimately for the sake of our community,” McQuiston said.
Almost immediately after the decision, comments flooded the district’s Facebook page with many expressing their disappointment in the decision. Some, however, while not thrilled by the decision, were grateful for the board and their hard work in making the difficult decision.
Over the course of a week, several posts were made in various Lake Orion Facebook groups, garnering several hundred comments overall.
“My mantra is always, ‘Are we doing what’s best for kids?’ But right now, we have to do what’s best for our entire school community: kids, employees, volunteers, parents, everybody,” said Trustee Scott Taylor in his closing comments. “And just know that we put our confidence in this plan and I really hope not to let you down.”