NEW LOTHROP — New Lothrop Area Public Schools Superintendent Anthony Berthiaume is confident students will begin the 2020-21 school year at New Lothrop as scheduled Aug. 20, though at this time, it’s anyone’s guess what the precise format may be, he said.
The district is preparing for face-to-face instruction as well as an entirely online format, both of which were outlined by Berthiaume Thursday evening during a socially-distanced community meeting with staff, students and parents at Hornet Field.
The 90-minute discussion drew more than 120 attendees as Berthiaume took time to answer questions from parents regarding what instruction may look like this fall.
“One of my responsibilities as superintendent, and I’ve always said this from the very start when I got this job, is to keep our kids safe, and I know in these times that’s very hard to do,” Bethiaume said in his opening remarks Thursday. “I really empathize with our parents on all the work that they did in the springtime with their students, not only being parents and professionals, but also teachers.
“I have three kids that are coming back to this school district and I know they need to be safe, but when I look at my three kids, I look at all of your kids in the same way,” Berthiaume continued. “I take a lot of value in regard to their health and safety, and so does all of our staff.”
Berthiaume indicated the district essentially has two options for instruction this fall: traditional face-to-face instruction and online, distance learning. The learning format the district ultimately selects will largely be dependent upon what phase Shiawassee County is in with regard to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s MI Safe Start Plan at the beginning of the school year.
The MI Safe Start Plan encompasses six phases, ranging from uncontrolled growth of the virus — Phase 1 — to post pandemic — Phase 6. Shiawassee County is currently in Phase 4.
Under Phase 4, New Lothrop would proceed with traditional face-to-face learning, according to Berthiaume, albeit with a number of virus-related precautions, including a mask requirement for all staff and students in grades 6-12, except while eating. Kindergarten through fifth-grade students would be required to wear masks during transitions, but not while inside the classroom, Berthiaume said. The mask requirements stem from Gov. Whitmer’s Return to School Roadmap, announced June 30, that sets specific requirements and guidelines schools must adhere to in order to reopen.
A fully online option would also available to students and parents under Phase 4, Berthiaume said, noting the online learning would likely be outsourced to a third-party vendor, combined with additional support from district staff.
Under Phases 1-3, New Lothrop students would participate in distance learning online. Curriculum would be taught by New Lothrop staff using technology such as online streaming, similar to what the district implemented in March after Gov. Whitmer suspended face-to-face instruction amid the pandemic, according to Berthiaume.
Under Phases 5-6, New Lothrop would proceed with traditional face-to-face instruction, though several health practices, including increased sanitation and some degree of social distancing, would still be in place.
There will be a health screening process for students if and when they are permitted to return to school, though the precise outline of the screening process has yet to be determined, Berthiaume said, noting a portion of the responsibility for screening may fall upon parents.
“I will be very blunt with you, I do not foresee taking the temperature of over 900 students, 945 if you count preschool, before they enter into the building (each day),” Berthiaume said. “That’s a lot of crowding. I’d rather the parents go on the honor system and I really hope if your student’s not feeling well, keep them home. That goes for staff too, if they’re not feeling well, don’t come to school.”
In the event that a student and/or a staff member contracts COVID-19, the health department will conduct contact tracing.
“Any student or staff that’s been within six feet for more than 15 minutes over the course of 48 hours … The health department will contact that individual family and alert them of the situation,” Berthiaume said.
Several parents took time during Thursday’s meeting to voice their concerns, many citing the difficulties and challenges with online instruction experienced earlier this year.
Deborah Nelson, whose daughter will be entering seventh grade in the district this fall, asked that teachers provide more direction to parents regarding their child’s curriculum. Nelson suggested that teachers record video lessons so that parents and students can follow along at the same time.
“You’ve got to help me understand it because my daughter was so frustrated (last year),” Nelson said. “I think what helped the most was the video from the teacher, explaining it, actually showing what she’s doing, walking through the steps … If (students) can see a visual, then I believe it would be a lot easier (for them).”
Berthiaume said the district is currently looking at additional support services and methods to assist students and parents with online learning, acknowledging communication between parents and teachers will be paramount moving forward.
“It’s a circle, Berthiaume said. “You’ve got your student, you’ve got your parent and you’ve got your staff. That full circle needs to be filled, that’s the communication, that’s what creates the learning environment within the classroom and the foundation for the support going back and forth because we’re all in this together … We’ve got to keep that constant communication going, that’s the key to education, that’s the key to working as a team and making sure the kids get the best education possible.”
Berthiaume plans to meet with a small group of parents and students Aug. 4 to gain further input on the district’s tentative learning plans. A finalized plan will go before the New Lothrop Area Public Schools Board of Education for approval during a special meeting at 6 p.m. Aug. 11. The meeting will be held inside the high school auditorium, according to Berthiaume, and will be open to the public as well as broadcast via the video conferencing app Zoom.
Regardless of how the district moves forward, Berthiaume knows parents, students and staff will have to do so together.
“We’re going to do this as a team, that’s the only way I know how,” Bethiaume said. “With parents, students and our staff, we can do it. There’s a lot to do but we have to do it for our kids, to keep them safe and get them educated.”