Community, school officials react to possibility of students not returning to classrooms

DOWAGIAC — The possibility of students not returning to the classroom for the remainder of the school year due to COVID-19 is still a topic of discussion at the legislative level.

On Friday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said during an interview with WWJ Newsradio it could be “very unlikely” schools will finish out the year with in-person interaction.

Dakota Phillips, a freshman at Dowagiac Union High School, said she was initially upset when she found out earlier this month she would not be returning to school until at least April.

“The situation has changed the way I learn,” Phillips said. “I went from a classroom environment to online classes. It kind of made me miss out on some of the end of the year stuff, too.”

Phillips, who said she missed walking in the halls with her friends and being in band class, had plans to possibly participate in track at the high school level. Those plans are likely dashed, as as the Michigan High School Athletic Association has extended its suspension of all activities to fell in line with Whitmer’s school closure and “stay-at-home” executive order.

Phillips also said some of her school subjects have been difficult to transition to online learning, especially Spanish and math.

If Phillips, along with her peers, does not return to school for the remainder of the year, she expressed concern with feeling academically prepared.

“We will probably have to relearn some of the stuff,” she said. “It would feel a little off to go back to a classroom environment after doing everything online.”

In addition to missing a classroom setting, Phillips said she missed the social aspect of learning and talking to people at school.

Entering the third week of schools being closed in Michigan, Dowagiac Union School officials are working to address all concerns, including those of students like Phillips, as the district prepares for the state’s next course of action.

“We are waiting on hold,” said Superintendent Jonathan Whan said of the school district’s current move. “We haven’t gotten any real clear direction or any answers on what the state’s expectations would be. We are right now in a holding pattern.”

On Friday, March 13, before school closures started March 16, students were sent home with books, activities and login information for Google Classroom so they could be provided with materials and access to software to support learning.

As the school prepares to begin its spring break on this coming Friday, Whan said the district will continue to wait.

“I think that you would get that from most superintendents across the state,” he added.

With no formal decisions made, Whan said the district is “eyes wide open and ears wide open,” for outside of the box options when it comes to learning.

“We have had conversations and talked rough ideas,” he said. “We are assessing how much high-speed access our rural areas have. Do all of our families truly have broadband internet connection? And if they do, do they have devices to handle wireless internet? We don’t have all that information yet.”

Currently, Whan said students are not having structured daily classes.

“There is no at 8 a.m. they do this, and at 9 a.m. you do this,” he said. “Families are working with the information we were able to provide them in a kind of homeschool setting.”

Whan said, between the online learning packets and other online resources available in a variety of subjects, students have continued education.

Whan said seniors are still going to graduate, but conversations are happening about what a ceremony would look like if social distancing mandates were still in place.

Michelle Hassle, the mother of a senior at Dowagiac Union High School, said she understood why schools needed to be closed as the virus is serious, but was upset for the seniors and all students — especially, those who were looking forward to the spring sports season.

During the school closing, Hassle said her son has learned life lessons rather than traditional classroom material.

“He’s not with his teachers, but on the other hand, this has slowed down life,” she said. “We do more together as a family. We are farmers, and so my son goes to work every day with his father, and we keep busy outside.”

To stay busy, Hassle considers her son “lucky” with woods behind their home.

“He walks out back into the woods, looks for deer antlers and can fish, but it’s not the same when you can’t take your friends,” she said.

Whitmer is expected to announce a plan this week, as state legislators are scheduled to return to Lansing on Wednesday.

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