COMMERCIAL-NEWS | ROBERT TOMLINSON - Three Rivers Community Schools Superintendent Ron Moag (left) and TRCS Board of Education President Erin Nowak (right) listen to public comment during Monday’s board meeting at the Three Rivers High School Performing Arts Center.

County positivity rate to determine TRMS, TRHS in-person return

7.9 percent county rate needed to return in-person; parents express disappointment

THREE RIVERS — A plan is now in place to determine when Three Rivers Community Schools can return to in-person learning at the middle school and high school level, and some parents are not thrilled about it.

The TRCS Board of Education voted 5-2 during their meeting Monday to approve a plan that would tie the middle school and high school’s return to in-person learning to the St. Joseph County COVID-19 case positivity rate. Secretary Anne Riopel and Trustee Kevin Hamilton dissented in the vote.

Monday’s meeting was held in-person at the Three Rivers High School Performing Arts Center, their first in-person meeting since October.

According to the plan, Three Rivers Middle School and Three Rivers High School will return to in-person learning once the COVID-19 case positivity rate in St. Joseph County reaches 7.9 percent or lower, based on school risk assessment data given to the district on a weekly basis by the Branch-Hillsdale-St. Joseph Community Health Agency (BHSJ). According to the data presented by Curriculum Director Nikki Nash, the positivity rate last week in the county was 9.2 percent.

Once that 7.9 percent number is reached, according to Superintendent Ron Moag, those schools will be back to in-person learning five days a week for the remainder of the school year starting two days after they receive their Monday weekly report, regardless of any fluctuations in the county’s positivity rate afterward.

The only exception to the rule will be for any school-related COVID-19 outbreaks, according to Moag. If there are any confirmed school outbreaks, such as the one reported at Andrews Elementary in mid-February that led to its building closure, the building affected will close down for two weeks in accordance to policy and reopen to in-person learning after.

Nash said the idea to use the case positivity rate as the main metric for re-opening the schools to in-person learning came from the district’s Secondary Return to Learn team, who Nash said met “four or five times” in the last two weeks to work on the issue.

“We get those risk assessments typically from the week prior, we get them on Monday,” Nash said. “The plan is to look at that positivity rate of 7.9 percent over the one week period that is reported to us. We will start monitoring it starting today. We will remain at 100 percent face-to-face unless we are moved to remote if there’s an outbreak or state order for remote learning.”

Nash said mask-wearing, hand sanitizing, contact tracing, and vaccine options will stay in place once they return in person, and social distancing will be “minimized.”

Moag said the metrics and social distancing guidelines will replace the letter of agreement between TRCS administration and the Three Rivers Education Association, which caused both schools to go back to hybrid learning at the end of February due to social distancing issues.

Multiple parents criticized the board for their handling of the last month in public comment, and said the board is not considering students’ needs or parent input when making decisions about learning styles.

“Our students’ needs outweigh the plan for hybrid learning,” parent Roxanne Lewis said. “The students are having physical issues, there’s emotional issues happening, health issues happening. We feel that full time would be the best for our kids. Part of the frustration is that, as parents, we don’t have a say. The board makes the decisions, the teacher union has a say, but as parents we really don’t have a say in what the safety for our kids is.”

Conversely, parent Michelle McGee wrote in an electronically-submitted comment she approved the board’s original move back to hybrid learning.

“According to 53.9 percent of the high school students themselves, being back full face-to-face raised their anxiety. I don’t believe this should be taken lightly,” McGee wrote. “I know kids want to be with their friends or back in school, I think they’re concerned about safety and this virus and taking it back home to their families. My daughter’s first thought when she was quarantined a few weeks ago wasn’t for herself, but did she bring COVID home to us. That’s what scared her.”

During board discussion of the plan, Trustee Kevin Hamilton expressed his concerns with the plan, asking why it was okay for high school sports to play when students weren’t learning in-person, referencing the girls’ basketball game happening at the same time in the nearby gym. He suggested the board send students back to school as soon as possible.

“It doesn’t make sense, we have kids who are playing contact sports right now, they’re breathing on one another, they’re rubbing on one another, but we’re saying those same kids can’t sit in a classroom next to one another? Someone tell me why that’s okay,” Hamilton said. “My suggestion is this: We get kids back to school Monday, face to face, regardless of what this 9.2, 10.5, whatever it is, we get kids back in school face-to-face Monday.

“We’re doing this for the kids. This whole thing is about adults, this isn’t about kids. That’s the whole reason why we’re here,” Hamilton continued. “So my suggestion is for the board to tighten our belts up a little and do what’s best for the kids.”

Riopel agreed with Hamilton and questioned the use of the case positivity metric in the plan.

“What I heard tonight is we won’t go back unless it’s 7.9 percent or less, and yet if the following week it’s up to 9.9 percent, we’ll still stay in school. It doesn’t make any sense to me that we can’t just start back,” Riopel said.

Following the vote, Trustee Ben Karle said there was a “lot of hard work” that went into making the decision, and hopes that the community can “heal” from the situation in the future.

“This is not something anybody asked for a year ago, and we’ve learned a whole lot in the last year,” Karle said. “It’s tearing people apart, and I hope that as a community we can heal from this eventually. We saw some examples tonight; there’s some strong viewpoints, and I hope we can disagree with people respectfully.”

Parents who attended the meeting in person said afterward they were “disappointed” with the board’s decision. Lewis said she hoped for students to return full-time right away, and argued that the case positivity rate metric should be based on just the Three Rivers area, and not the entire county.

“Sturgis has had twice the number of positive cases, so our percentage should be significantly less,” Lewis said. “It’s good we have a plan, but it should be more attainable.”

Parent Jerry Kirby said the board needs to focus more on the district’s vision statement when making these kind of decisions, calling the decision to use the metric a “double standard.”

“If they get down to 7.9 percent, we’ll come back, and when they asked if it reaches a certain number, they’ll stay open. Our county’s at 9.2 percent right now, but they won’t open up. It doesn’t make sense,” Kirby said. “Our district’s vision statement is to be the district of choice in the county. Well, in order to be the district of choice, they have to actually be open.”

Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 ext. 23 or robert@threeriversnews.com.

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