Serving Gogebic, Iron and Ontonagon Counties

Ironwood provides update on back-to-school plan


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Ironwood — In a series of meetings with staff, the school board and the public, officials with the Ironwood Area Schools has begun laying out the district’s tentative plans for the return to school in fall as the state continues to grapple with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“Our current effort is to provide as much choice as possible for our parents and our community members, while maintaining safety for our students and teachers,” Superintendent Travis Powell told the Ironwood board of education Monday. “Ideally, we will have an opportunity for in-person instruction, an opportunity for distance or remote instruction that matches exactly what’s happening in our classroom and then … we have a third option that will be a fully virtual experience.”

In all the meetings, Powell stressed the district was still finalizing its plans for fall.

“The important thing about our plan is that we’re building it currently, we needed input from teachers and community members in order to build our best plan,” Powell told the Daily Globe, adding there were still a number of unknowns that could impact the plan.

One of the biggest things still up in the air is what phase of the state’s reopening the area will be in when school starts.

He said in-person learning is only allowed in phases 4 and 5, with distance learning mandated in the other phases. While the Upper Peninsula is currently in Phase 5, Powell said that could be downgraded if the number of COVID cases continues to rise.

This means the possibility of a return to classrooms in fall is ultimately up to the community.

“The point that I really need to stress is that the health department said, ‘In order for school to be open in person, the community needs to work to limit the spread of this disease,’” Powell told the board Monday. “Only Phase 4 and Phase 5 allow in-person instruction. If we’re back to Phase 3, then that’s all remote or digital instruction. So we’ve got a lot of work to do as a community if we’re going to be able to continue to make sure the opportunity for in-person instruction is viable.”

Along with the three general learning options the district is considering — in-person, some form of remote or distance learning, and a fully digital option — Powell said there may be an opportunity to develop a hybrid path for parents interested in that.

“That three-part process still works no matter what the particular formula happens to be,” Powell told the Daily Globe

He also said the district’s plans may change one or more times over the course of the school year depending on fluctuations in the case numbers.

If in-person instruction does take place, Powell said the district’s current plan calls for students in seventh through 12th grade to wear masks in the classrooms and common areas, while younger students would only have to wear masks in the common areas of the school.

He explained the distinction follows state guidelines and is based on the district’s ability to “cohort,” or keep the younger grades in the same general groups.

“Basically, if we can keep a class together in that class — so what you would expect from a traditional elementary classroom, (they don’t have to wear masks in the classroom),” Powell said. “To the extent we can have children come into one classroom and stay there with that adult, those children — according to the road map — have the possibility, at least under Phase 5, to not wear a mask during instruction, during the time they’re in the classroom.”

In response to a parent’s question during a presentation last week, Powell said he realized the younger grades may not be used to keeping masks on and the district’s approach to the issue will focus on educating students on the correct behavior — just like any of the other behavior rules teachers enforce throughout each year.

The older students will likely have to wear masks in class because there is more movement within the student population due to different class schedules.

Powell said the district is also examining the impact these requirements will have on electives, and while he envisions students still taking classes like art, gym and music, the details of how those classes will take place is still being worked out.

Another place students will have to wear masks is when riding the buses to and from school, although the state isn’t requiring social distancing on bus rides. Kids will also have to use hand sanitizer before boarding the buses.

Powell said he understands why some people may wonder whether it’s worth it to attempt in-person learning, given the process for determining how to do it is so complex and there is a risk of spreading the virus, but said there are several reasons to support in-person learning

“There’s a lot of variables we’re considering. One of them that’s really difficult to quantify is the mental health impact of both being quarantined and separated from your peers and the perceived mental health benefits of being in what feels normal — in the situation that feels familiar,” Powell said, adding there are a lot of articles being written on all sides of the issue but there’s an indication that students might be best served by in-person learning if possible.

He also said that he believes in-person instruction will allow students to get more out of the educational process and he doesn’t want to end that earlier than he has to.

While the details are still being worked out, the district’s plan for how it will provide education during the upcoming school year needs to be approved prior to Aug. 15, Powell told the school board, meaning a special board meeting will be called sometime next month.

So far there isn’t a concrete timeline on when parents will have to decide which of the educational options their kids will be using and the district will be working with families to provide more information as the process moves forward.

“Deadlines are important, but we also don’t want anyone to get left hanging one way or the other,” Powell told the Daily Globe.