OWOSSO — Students and families of Owosso Public Schools will have a choice between fully online and hybrid instruction this fall — options that were strongly supported by families in a recent district survey, according to Superintendent Andrea Tuttle.
The Owosso Public Schools Board of Education voted 5-1 Monday to approve the district’s COVID-19 Preparedness and Response Plan — which is inclusive of the district’s Return To Learn Plan — with Trustee Olga Quick dissenting. Newly appointed Trustee Cheryl Paez was absent.
The vote was part of a nearly three-hour meeting conducted via Zoom that featured more than 270 online attendees and public comments from Owosso residents, alumni and staff, the majority of whom expressed concerns about students and staff returning for face-to-face learning.
District families have until Aug. 18 to select a learning format for their child(ren), according to Tuttle. Families choosing the online option must commit to the format through at least Sept. 30, she said.
The district’s academic year begins Sept. 8.
“The decision on how to safely reopen school has been the hardest, bar none, professional decision I have had to make in my 25-year career,” Tuttle said. “I’m used to making tough decisions, but none have been tougher than this one. I’m worried; I’m worried about our kids, our families, our community and beyond.”
Nearly three-quarters of Owosso families (72 percent) expressed a desire for some form of in-person instruction this fall, while 28 percent of families said they preferred a fully online model, according to a district survey conducted in July.
To accommodate both groups, Owosso Public Schools will offer an in-person, hybrid format — in which students participate in a shortened school day with follow-up online assignments at home — and a fully online format, both of which will be led by Owosso teachers, Tuttle said.
All Owosso staff and students in grades 6-12 participating in face-to-face learning will be required to wear a face mask, except while eating, according to the approved plan and in accordance with statewide executive orders. Kindergarten through fifth-grade students will have to wear masks in common areas, including while riding the bus and walking in school hallways. While they are not required to wear them inside classrooms, the district strongly recommends they do so, Tuttle said.
Additional safety precautions tied to face-to-face instruction include wiping down desks after every class and the distribution of lunch in individual classrooms, rather than students congregating in the cafeteria.
The district’s offerings will remain largely contingent upon Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s MI Safe Start Plan, which encompasses six phases ranging from uncontrolled growth of the virus — Phase 1 — to post pandemic — Phase 6.
Shiawassee County is currently in Phase 4, medium risk, which allows for in-person instruction. If the county drops into Phase 3, the district will have to transition all students to the online format.
In addition to outlining Owosso’s Return to Learn Plan detailing the district’s instructional offerings, Tuttle discussed coronavirus-related safety measures the district plans to implement to facilitate face-to-face learning.
Though survey results previously indicated an overwhelming desire for a face-to-face option, the majority of area residents, staff and alumni that spoke during Monday’s meeting expressed deep concerns regarding the health and safety of students and staff if they return to school.
Owosso Middle School special education teacher Valerie James said that while teachers are being viewed as essential workers during this time, she doesn’t feel prepared to put her life on the line.
“Those that truly are essential workers knew what they were doing when they chose their career as far as putting their life on the line as a police officer, a firefighter or a doctor, they knew what they were being exposed to,” James said. “As a teacher, I don’t feel equipped to handle a pandemic and a health crisis and I know it’s going to be extremely difficult to keep my kids safe in my classroom.
“I just don’t feel prepared,” she continued. “My husband is immunocompromised and pretty much anything I’ve ever brought home from school he’s caught, and he’s been hospitalized for just the flu before so I’m extremely worried about that (as well).”
Quick also expressed concerns regarding the health and safety of students and staff, noting that under the district’s current plan, she doesn’t believe face-to-face instruction can be safely executed.
“My concern is with the safety of everyone,” Quick said. “I do not believe face-to-face instruction can happen … With this plan, a lot of consideration is given to families, but we have staff that we have to be mindful of. We have staff that are making arrangements for a will, we have staff that are making arrangements for their children, we have staff that are talking about moving out of their homes to keep their families safe. Don’t we have an obligation? Aren’t they part of our school system? Don’t we need to take care of them too?”
Tuttle said teachers would be expected to conduct face-to-face instruction unless they provided documentation detailing a medical condition that would make it unsafe for them to return to work, under guidelines laid out in Whitmer Executive Order 2020-166.
Board Vice President Shelly Ochodnicky motioned to approved the district’s plan, noting in-person learning is important for students’ mental health. She also cited a CDC article entitled “The Importance of Reopening America’s Schools this Fall,” which indicated that as of July 17, the U.S. reported that children under 18 years old accounted for less than 7 percent of COVID-19 cases and less than 0.1 percent of COVID-19 related deaths.
“To say that we shouldn’t have school when 75 percent of our families and children want that is just wrong. And I’m sorry, but I feel I represent a silent majority of parents and kids out there that want to be in school, that need to be in school for all of the reasons that are listed in this document,” Ochodnicky said. “Did you know that we have like the highest rate per capita of sexual abuse in children? Can you imagine what has happened to them? Are you not worried about these kids?
“I know who I work for. I don’t work for the staff. I am an elected official for the children and the parents of this community and I’ll be damned if we’re not going to open schools because we feel we can’t,” she said. “We have done that best that we can do and given the circumstances that we are in right now, we cannot deny these children all of the things that they need and they get from us every day.”
The motion to approve the plan was supported by Trustee Ty Krauss.
In the final portion of public comment, Owosso resident Eric Locker — Quick’s son — echoed his mother’s concerns about teachers and staff, noting the potential for severe illness and even death.
“Individuals I know and love will become sick,” Locker said, holding back tears. “My former teachers who I have grown to love are fearing not only for their own life, but for the lives of their families. Tonight, you listened to the current and former employees of Owosso Public Schools, parents of children, alumni and Owosso students themselves who all told you that they were scared and it brings me to tears that after hearing all of these individuals speak, you still approved the plan.
“My heart hurts now that all I can do is pray for the safety of my loved ones, be it students, teachers or staff.”