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As long as local health
require­ments permit, each of the schools plan to be open for the entirety of the spring. |Pexels

Hillsdale County high schools are returning to in-person instruction this January as a result of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer allowing the return across Michigan on Dec. 18, 2020.

Hillsdale Com­munity Schools, North Adams-Jerome Public Schools, and the public charter school Will Car­leton Academy all resumed in-person high school classes on Monday, Jan. 4. Litch­field Com­munity Schools returned from the hol­idays with one week of virtual classes for K‑12 and started in-person classes Monday, Jan. 11.

“We chose to wait one more week to give people a chance after vacation and holiday gath­erings to sort out who might be exposed or test pos­itive so we can keep those folks at home,” Litch­field Super­in­tendent Mike Corey said. “The hope is, that once we start back in person we can stay open and in session [through June] according to our cal­endar.”

As long as local health require­ments permit, each of the schools plan to be open for the entirety of the spring — with addi­tional health pro­tocols and the option of online learning.

Super­in­tendent of Hillsdale Com­munity Schools Shawn Vondra said in an email that their in-person learning plan includes social dis­tancing, face cov­erings, addi­tional PPE pro­tocols, stag­gered start and stop times, limited inter­action time between classes, cohort grouping of stu­dents, social dis­tancing during lunch and recess times, and daily san­i­tizing and dis­in­fecting pro­tocols. The dis­trict also increased staffing to reduce class sizes in class­rooms and to teach stu­dents choosing to learn vir­tually.

Likewise, Will Car­leton Academy Director Colleen Vogt described their routine as “a big-picture mit­i­gation strategy,” but keeping it all in-person.

Among other pro­tocols such as tem­per­ature checks and mask-wearing, stu­dents remain in their des­ig­nated class­rooms for the whole day and only multi-year instructors — such as the art, french, and physical edu­cation teachers — travel from room to room. In order to keep classroom sizes small, the school now uses the gym for another “classroom” area with spaced-out desks. Stu­dents alternate between days in the classroom with the teacher and days in the mod­ified gym watching their class syn­chro­nously over Zoom.

The schools are also preparing for the pos­si­bility of another gov­ernment-man­dated shutdown. Super­in­tendent of North Adams-Jerome Public Schools Wes Johnson said in an email that the admin­is­tration is taking extra steps to aid student’s mental health and tech­no­logical needs.

“We know the mental health aspect of the last 10 months has been hard on all of us, so we are taking steps to get mental health pro­fes­sionals aware of our needs,” Johnson said. “We aren’t sure if the gov­ernment has plans to mandate virtual only in the near future, so we have invested a great deal of resources into tech­nology capa­bil­ities for every student who needs it.”

However, each of the schools are making every effort to stay open, as the quality of in-person learning sur­passes online school.

“If given the choice to stay online or be in person, we choose in person,” Vogt said. “We are con­fident that we’re keeping COVID-19 off due to everyone making good choices.”

Johnson said North Adams-Jerome Public Schools prefer the in-person model and believe it is “much better” for all parties.

“I don’t think there is an ade­quate sub­stitute for high quality in-person instruction,” Johnson said. “I believe our teachers and paras are some of the top pro­fes­sionals in the area and this pan­demic has shown how valuable teachers are.”

Vondra stated that in-person instruction is preferable for stu­dents devel­oping critical thinking skills.

“The classroom envi­ronment in Hillsdale Com­munity Schools is designed to help stu­dents develop important critical thinking skills while learning content and factual knowledge,” Vondra said. “When stu­dents and teachers are at school, the classroom dis­cus­sions, hands-on exper­i­ments, guided-practice lessons and timely feedback help stu­dents develop these skills more effec­tively.”

One of the main struggles with virtual learning that many noted is the lack of instant feedback.

For example, Vondra said there are often times “when stu­dents are unsure or even not aware of their errors and mis­un­der­standings.” As a result, not all stu­dents ask the important ques­tions of their teacher. “When stu­dents are together in a classroom,” Vondra said, “everyone can benefit from any student asking ques­tions.”

Addi­tionally, the school admin­is­trators addressed the rela­tional impor­tance of having school in-person.

“Rela­tion­ships and per­sonal contact is the biggest thing impacted in virtual school,” Corey said. “All our staff are really excited about being back in the building.”

Vogt noted the impor­tance of per­sonal con­nection such as eye contact, which is lost in virtual learning.

“One of the things that draws people here is the family atmos­phere,” Vogt said. “Even six feet apart, you’re able to connect and see [the stu­dents’] eyes. Over a com­puter screen, you can’t read body lan­guage.”                                                                                

Johnson said he believes stu­dents “will always benefit more” from being in the room with the teacher.

“We weren’t created to stare at com­puter screens all day,” Johnson said.