Area school administrators use time to plan distance learning, rest of year

BERRIEN COUNTY — Schools are currently on a new kind of spring break. With travel restrictions in place and social distancing measures implemented, trips are not the usual point of conversation amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, with school buildings mandated to remain closed for the rest of the 2019-2020 school year, the break gives administrators time to plan the next few weeks of their curriculum plans.

Michigan’s Gov. Gretchen Whitmer handed down the mandate to keep schools closed on April 2. Administrators at Niles Community Schools, Brandywine Community Schools and Buchanan Community Schools all sent out communications that same day to families with what they interpreted that meant going forward.

In Buchanan Community Schools’ letter from superintendent Timothy Donahue to families, he acknowledged the district’s learning plan would likely evolve.

“We see ourselves building towards a hybrid plan of delivering instruction online for many grade levels,” Donahue said. “Then, in a more hands-on, paper and pencil recourse approach for lower elementary students in reading and math. We are developing plans to deploy devices to students in the coming weeks to facilitate online learning.”

Karen Weimer, superintendent of Brandywine Community Schools, is taking advantage of the time the district’s regularly scheduled spring break affords her.

“Our teachers aren’t putting out any new work for students,” Weimer said of the week. “It’s a break for everybody. The administrators are working on getting a framework for our plan. Then, we are going to work with teachers to flesh it out so that we get everyone’s input.”

Through the spring break week, Weimer is working with other administrators and building principals to go through the information they are receiving from the state level.

“We are getting a ton of information, which is wonderful,” Weimer said. “We just have to filter through it and figure out what works best for us and that we are remaining compliant with everything.”

Moving forward in distance learning and eLearning plans, the new outlines provide for the new methods to count towards the state requirements for the school year.

“We are going to be able to count these days, is my understanding,” Weimer said. “As long as we have a plan that is approved by our Berrien Regional Education Service Agency, and then we send it on to the state, we should still get full funding for that.”

Webinars and teleconferences with professional organizations and attorneys to make sure the plans fit the mandate will fill much of Weimer’s week.

For Niles Community Schools, Superintendent Dan Applegate is also working on plans for the rest of the current year.

“Administrators are working tirelessly to put together a learning plan that will include teachers and other stakeholders in the development,” Applegate said. “Once complete, the learning plan will be submitted to the Berrien Regional Education Service Agency for approval. Once the learning plan has been approved, we will roll it out to our families.”

Explaining Gov. Whitmer’s orders, he said kindergarten through 11-grade students will move forward to the next grade as long as they meet necessary requirements.

“Seniors who were on track to graduate, will graduate as expected,” Applegate said.

As the school districts move forward in their planning, they acknowledged that the COVID-19 virus has put their students, their families and the schools into a position they’ve never found themselves in before.

“It is uncharted territory for everybody,” Weimer said. “I know that parents are waiting to hear from us. We’re waiting to hear from our representatives at the Department of Education and from a professional organization. It’s just new for everybody. We are just trying to do what we can and do what’s best and right.”