Screenshot via YouTube - Members of the Three Rivers Community Schools Board of Education discuss returning to hybrid learning during a special meeting Tuesday.

TR High School, Middle School to return to hybrid learning

THREE RIVERS — After just a little over two weeks of full in-person learning, the Three Rivers Community Schools Board of Education is changing course again with Three Rivers High School and Three Rivers Middle School.

During a two-hour special meeting Tuesday, the board voted 4-3 to have both buildings return to hybrid learning beginning Monday, March 1. In a letter to parents explaining the move Wednesday, Superintendent Ron Moag said the decision was based on an “increase in positive COVID cases and close contacts impacting our secondary schools” and the district’s “inability to social distance the MDHHS/CDC recommended minimum of three feet.”

The move to hybrid learning does not affect the elementary schools.

“Everyone involved – from our county health partners to the leaders within our school district – are working with positive intent to do what is right and best for our students, staff, and our community,” Moag wrote. “There are no easy decisions, only decisions that we believe are being made with safety and health of our students and staff in mind.”

According to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard, the high school, as well as Hoppin Elementary, reported a total of three student and staff positive COVID-19 cases combined on Feb. 18, while the middle school reported three student cases Thursday. According to TRCS Curriculum Director Nikki Nash, in the past week more than 52 students had to be quarantined at the high school, with at least 13 students being quarantined at the middle school.

Nash said the district’s secondary Return To Learn team met recently and discussed the three learning options, weighing the pros and cons of each: full face-to-face, hybrid, and a “blended” model desired by some parents in a recent parent survey. After the blended model was resoundingly eliminated in the first vote by the team – 77 percent of the group had that model as their third choice – they then took a second vote between the hybrid model and full face-to-face. The team overwhelmingly recommended the hybrid model, with 76 percent of the team voting in favor of it.

Nash said concerns with social distancing in the classroom were the main factor behind the team’s recommendation, as well as the amount of engagement, interaction and attendance with students in the hybrid model. In addition, Nash said the team felt there was more one-on-one feedback and support for students.

“They had more interaction, and with attendance, they felt the students were more consistently there with the hybrid model,” Nash said. “Social distancing was a big one. Average class sizes are about 24, and hiring the additional staff members is not going to reduce the class sizes.”

Moag said for the most part, even though class balancing was done that “moved kids around” with classes at the middle school and high school, class sizes were still predominantly above 20 students, which did not provide for much social distancing in those classrooms.

“For the most part, we’re still in the mid-20s for most classes. The issue is, even if we add staff, we’re still limited with classroom space at the middle school and high school,” Moag said. “We can’t bring classes into the gym because we have PE classes going on, it’s not an option to put them in the hallways, and both PACs are being used by the music programs.”

Board Treasurer Julia Awe expressed her frustration that a previous letter of agreement between the district and the Three Rivers Education Association from Aug. 20, 2020 about returning to in-person learning was not being adhered to by the board, which she said the board didn’t see until “last week.” A grievance was reportedly sent to the board by the teacher’s union last week.

“Ultimately, that’s the biggest issue we have,” Awe said. “I’m frustrated with the fact that when we voted for [going back to in-person learning] back in January, this should’ve been brought to our attention. We had letters of agreements that were in place that we needed to be sure we needed to consult. Whether or not they were still applicable, we should’ve touched base with them, and we didn’t.”

The letter in question, signed by Moag and TREA Co-Presidents Alisa Wilkins and Brian Burg, stated that for face-to-face instruction, the district “shall ensure that no one shall be required to violate social distancing, shelter in place orders, or similar orders.” It also states that classrooms “shall comply” with CDC-recommended six-foot social distancing. The letter was not ratified by the Board of Education. Given the circumstances described by Moag, a violation of that agreement appeared to have occurred. Board members agreed during discussion that the letter of agreement should be adhered to.

Board Secretary Anne Riopel said the district has a “double standard” when it comes to not having students in school and allowing contact sports to proceed, and asked if anyone on the Return to Learn team had visited any schools that have successfully used a blended model. Nash said nobody had visited, but she had reached out to schools that have done so, who had said it “wasn’t easy” to do.

Nash said, ultimately, there’s “no easy answer” to the entire situation.

“There’s no right solution, it’s just looking at it to be safe is what we need to do,” Nash said. “In-person learning is difficult to juggle right now because of social distancing, but we also know it’s what’s best for our kids. But are we putting them in the best position? The other part is hybrid is difficult too. We had some kids that did real well with hybrid, so there’s not an easy solution.”

Multiple teachers from the middle school and high school shared their thoughts on the situation as well, each with their own perspectives. Most agreed that the hybrid model was the way to go.

“A lot of people thought there was a mistake coming back full 100 percent face to face, and there were several people that admitted that to administrators and teachers alike,” Language Arts Teacher Amy Lockwood said. “There was a [Return to Learn] member that brought up a very good point and said that if there’s agreement that a mistake has been made, there shouldn’t be shame in admitting the fact that we believe a mistake was made and working to rectify the mistake if that’s what a majority of the board felt at that point.”

High School Math Teacher Brian Burg, who also coaches the school’s boys’ basketball team, said that while it’s “great” his team is playing, he “almost lost possibly the [basketball] season” because of the district being face-to-face.

“Having 28 kids in the classroom with the majority of my basketball guys and them being around possibly a quarantined student, we could’ve been wiped out, where you guys were all for us playing,” Burg said, while mentioning that the number one thing on the district’s strategic plan is safety and security for students. “With hybrid, we can make it work at the high school. Right now, I’ve got kids quarantined, and I’m making it work. But it’d be great to be able to have not 25 kids in my classroom and three quarantined if we went and split that up.”

Board President Erin Nowak asked how to explain to parents that the district would be going back to hybrid learning after a parent survey two weeks ago recommended face-to-face learning. Riopel said it’s because the district “has no choice” because of the issue with the letter of agreement not being followed by the district. Trustee Ben Karle pointed out that only 7 percent of the district’s parents filled out the survey in the first place, calling it “concerning.”

“Explaining the rationale behind all of this is tricky. Everyone has opinions and there’s been different models tried, none of which are easy. Those are tough conversations,” Karle said.

Trustee Kevin Hamilton said he was concerned about the “flip-flop back and forth” of learning models.

“I don’t think it’s fair to the ultimate consumer, which is our kids and then our parents,” Hamilton said. “If we would’ve had this letter prior to, we would’ve had a different discussion. It’s difficult to go back and forth and then to say to the kids and the parents, oh we potentially went back because of a letter, I just wish we had it a long time ago.”

Trustee Melissa Bliss said she doesn’t want to “toss out” that the parent survey wanted kids back face to face.

“I want to make sure the community realizes we’re taking this into consideration, and it basically comes down to what the teachers can accomplish versus what our community is asking for,” Bliss said. “The majority is the complete opposite.”

After some more discussion on the issue, as well as public comment where a few parents, students and community members shared their thoughts on the issue, the board voted to accept the Return to Learn team’s recommendation to go to hybrid learning. Bliss, Hamilton and Nowak dissented in the vote.

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

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