NEW BUFFALO — The New Buffalo Area Schools Board of Education approved a state-mandated COVID-19 Preparedness and Response Plan, along with a New Buffalo Area Schools Return to School Road Map, during its Monday, Aug. 10, regular meeting.
Superintendent Dr. Jeff Leslie said the New Buffalo Area Schools’ COVID-19 Preparedness and Response Plan has to be submitted to Berrien RESA by Friday, Aug. 14, with much of what is in the plan dictated either by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s road map to reopening or by guidelines from the Berrien County Health Department.
A local committee, representatives of Berrien RESA and the County Health Department, and area superintendents were involved in devising the COVID-19 Preparedness and Response Plan.
“We started meeting with the superintendents on June 2nd, and we’ve been working closely with Nikki Britten and the Berrien County Health Department … Lots of conversation, getting input from a wide variety of stakeholders,” Leslie said.
“Basically what that plan is requiring us to do is to give assurances (if) we’re in phases one through three we cannot have in-person education, the building is going to be essentially closed aside from essential personnel for delivering meals, education and things of that nature. We’re going to do all the required things in the road map for phase four (the area’s current status) as well as phase five. And if we were to get to phase six then that’s the end of the pandemic,” he noted.
The River Valley Board of Education passed its version of a Preparedness and Response Plan during a special Aug. 10 meeting, with Superintendent Douglas Scott Bojanich saying the plan represents a joint effort between the County Health Department, the Michigan Department of Education and all of the superintendents in Berrien County.
“If you look at everybody’s plan, (they) would look very much alike,” he said, adding once the plan is approved it goes to the Berrien RESA superintendent and then on to the State Department of Education.
Although few details of the River Valley plan were discussed during the special meeting, Bojanich said the district’s learning plans (per building) would be posted on its website soon, and he did post the following back-to-school letter shortly after the meeting:
Dear Mustang Families, First, I am excited to share our Return to Learning Plan for River Valley School District. Our plan was carefully and deliberately thought out by a team of over twelve people including River Valley Education Association members. Without River Valley teacher’s willingness to go “above and beyond” their responsibilities, we would not be able to provide the level of instruction your children deserve. Our plan is different than most plans, in that we are using our teachers, our curriculum,
our instruction, in our school. We thought it was important that River Valley students be educated by River Valley teachers throughout this entire process, no matter the phase. Our virtual option in River Valley will be our teachers “streaming” lessons to our students. Many school districts in our area and throughout Michigan have opted to provide their students with a virtual plan either in another school district or by a large national virtual school. No-one involved in creating our Return to School Plan wanted to send our Mustang students to another school or entity.
River Valley School District will start school on August 31st as originally planned in two different ways.
Students Kindergarten through 5th Grade will start either face-face or virtually. Students in grades 6 through 12 will begin school only virtually until Tuesday, September 8th. The reason students are in a virtual environment from August 31st until Tuesday, September 8th is to make sure
our systems and processes have been tested prior to having students in class with other students live-streaming at the same time.
If the State of Michigan is in Phase 4 or above, we will begin learning face-face for students who wish to attend school as normal. If a parent chooses not to send their child to school, a virtual option will be offered from each school. The virtual option will consist of River Valley teachers providing the instruction in a manner appropriate for the age of the student.
If the State of Michigan is in Phase 3 or below, all students in River Valley and across the State of Michigan must not be present in the school building and pursue virtual options.
Kindergarten through 12th grade students will begin school face to face or virtually depending upon the choice of the parents. Because of the age of the students, careful consideration was given to the appropriate content and duration of time a child needs to spend using technology.
During the Aug. 10 New Buffalo meeting, Leslie said the New Buffalo Area Schools COVID-19 Preparedness and Response Plan document (which is posted on the district’s website) includes:
• A section on face coverings which provides an exception for those who cannot medically tolerate wearing one.
“The students have to wear them on the bus, in the hallways, K-5 students do not have to wear one in the classroom as long as they’re with their cohorts. Six-12 students do have to wear them in the classrooms, they don’t have to wear them while they’re eating their lunch. Staff need to wear face coverings at all times.”
School Board President Chuck Heit noted that on phase four masks are mandatory due to state orders.
• The second section deals with hygiene including emphasizing hand washing with lots of sanitizer and cleaning protocols for the custodial staff.
• Busing and transportation rules include buses being disinfected daily, social distance students as much as possible and load from back to front.
• In the area of athletics the district will follow the requirements of the MHSAA, which Leslie said are still “a little bit up in the air.”
• Parents need to screen their children before they come to school (and staff members are required to do daily self-screenings via a MySymptom app).
“We’ll be working with the Berrien County Health Department should we get any students or staff that test positive for the coronavirus,” he said, later noting that having students and staff stay home from school is symptoms are detected, COVID-19 testing, contact tracing and other steps could come into play depending on the situation.
Students not able to attend school due to illness or quarantine would be dealt with on an individual basis. Leslie said the district has faced similar situations in the past.
Leslie noted that students choosing a virtual learning option (the Bison Virtual Academy) instead of in-school classes will still be eligible for extracurricular activities and (if they live in the district) the district’s Bison-Pokagon Scholarship program.
Leslie said the district is partnering with Edmentum for the virtual option, which will feature state-certified teachers from the appropriate grade level who are employed by the firm.
“They’re going to be covering the Michigan state standards just like our New Buffalo teachers,” he said.
Leslie later said students can choose to switch to in-school classes (or to the Virtual Academy) once a new trimester begins.
Heit also said all students would go back to learning at home if the portion of Michigan that includes New Buffalo goes to phase 3.
Leslie said NBAS teachers would handle the remote learning for the same students who were in their class if a phase 3 situation occurs. He noted that remote learning in the upcoming school year would be much more rigorous that it was last April and May.
“The attendance requirements are going to be more like regular school, the amount of time spent in the classroom is going to be more like regular school,” he said.
As for the New Buffalo Area Schools Return to School Road Map (which is not state-mandated), Leslie said it deals with both in-school instruction and the Bison Virtual Academy.
He said principals will be reaching out to families to plan for the 2020-2021 school year, with a goal of knowing which option they are choosing by Aug. 24.
“Once we know which students want to go with the virtual option and which ones would like to go with the in-person option … we might have to tweak some of our class rosters for the in-person to make sure those are leveled,” he said.
The Road Map also calls for students and teachers to be sapced as far apart as possible in the classrooms and for work stations to face the same direction.
Leslie said there’s a link to the Return to School Road Map on the district’s website while a video on back-to-school issues has been posted on its Facebook pages.
Heit noted that the New Buffalo Area Schools are slated to start classes about a week after some area districts (after Labor Day), offering a chance to see how those openings go. He also said plans may change as the school year goes on.
Leslie said several of the superintendents meeting on the preparedness plans talked about the importance of issues related to trust.
“There’s got to be some trust for us to make all of this work. I know the parents and the staff are really counting on us to make sure we’re doing all those cleaning protocols, everything that’s in that Road Map — that we’re going to do what we say that we’re going to do. We’ve got to trust that the parents are going to screen their child before they send them to school. Everybody’s got to trust each other … in order to get through this,” he said.
Referring to High School Principal Wayne Butler recently stating that the New Buffalo Area Schools have “a culture of caring,” Leslie said the reason the district is taking steps such as instituting strict cleaning protocols and mandating the wearing of face coverings is not just because it’s mandated by the state, but because “we don’t want people to get sick.”
In other Aug. 10 business, the New Buffalo Area Schools Board of Education:
• Approved a $39,462 purchase order to have Enviro-Flo, Ltd., repair the middle/high school building’s chiller unit to restore air conditioning there.
Operation Director Keith Carlson explained that a line that sends glycol from the unit to the heat exchanger has a crack in it and needs to be relined with epoxy in a way that avoids having to dig up 75 feet of concrete. He said the project is scheduled for Aug. 24 and 25, with plans to begin bringing it back online about a week later.
Carlson added that 270 gallons of glycol was retained in the system, with an additional 80 more gallons needing to be added.
• Agreed to purchase Iwave-C air purifiers from Control Solutions, Inc., to reduce COVID viruses (at a reported rate of 97 percent) from the heating and cooling systems at the elementary and middle/high school buildings via positive and negative charged ions for a total of $97,059.
• Accepted the resignation (effective immediately) of Timothy Schultz, a bus driver for the past seven years.