Area schools offer virtual learning

BERRIEN COUNTY — On Tuesday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer released “Michigan’s MI Safe Schools: Michigan’s 2020-21 Return to School Roadmap” providing guidance for how to approach the coming school year.

Now, area schools are already taking into consideration their own alternative options.

Brandywine Community Schools, Buchanan Community Schools and Niles Community Schools all have a virtual academy option in place as separate educational options for students to enroll in should the need arise.

In the “Return to School Roadmap,” Whitmer outlined three different scenarios for schools opening in fall 2020.

According to the roadmap, if the Michigan Safe Start plan is in Phase 6 at the time schools are set to begin classes, schools would “open for in-person instruction with minimal required safety protocols.” Phase 6 is defined as when community spread is not expected to return and the state is in an effectively “post-pandemic.”

In a Phase 5 scenario, “containing,” where the case and death rates are declining and outbreaks are contained quickly, schools would “open for in-person instruction with moderate required safety protocols.”

Phase 4, “improving,” carries with it “more stringent required safety protocols.”

In Safe Start Phase 1, “uncontrolled growth,” Phase 2 “persistent spread” and Phase 3 “flattening,” schools will not re-open for in-person instruction. Remote education would need to be provided.

Niles Community Schools updated its website on Tuesday to include links to “Niles Virtual School Open House.” The open house includes a slide presentation and spoken recording of the presentation by administrators to guide those interested through the options that Niles Community Schools has to provide in both alternative and remote education.

Dan Applegate, superintendent of Niles Community Schools, led off the presentation with enthusiasm.

“I’m excited. Our kids need options. Our parents need options. Our families need these options,” Applegate said. “I know the impact of COVID-19 might be changing some scenarios and directions that our families might take. Our virtual programming is a great option for families, not only because of the impact of COVID-19, but just for those families that want this option.”

Niles Community Schools offers Cedar Lane, full- and part-time virtual school, and WAY Forward. All four options include opportunities for remote learning and customized learning plans.

Mark Frey, director of the Buchanan Virtual Academy, has not yet seen a swell in enrollment for the fall. Buchanan Community Schools also offers Buchanan Step Up, which assists students struggling in the virtual academy.

“I think a lot of people are still waiting to see what the governor has to say,” Frey said. “The kids we had in classes last year have re-enrolled and want to continue e-learning. We’ve seen probably a 3 percent increase at this time, but I still think many are waiting.”

In the Buchanan Virtual Academy, students still receive a diploma from Buchanan High School.

“It’s self-paced,” Frey said. “If a student is struggling, needs more time or, in the case of this pandemic, to catch up, this is a great opportunity for them to take control of their learning and work with us.”

Brandywine Innovation Academy is Brandywine Community Schools’ answer to distance learning for students.

Students enrolled in the BIA are provided a Chromebook and work at their own pace through course work, while still having access to sports and extracurricular activities. The flexible scheduling, with the option to have in-person instruction and help from teachers as students need, helps students stay on an academic track while adapting the curriculum to their specific needs.

“Reading through Michigan’s Return to School Roadmap, it seems like a good, well thought out plan, depending on what phase we are in,” said Michelle Wruble, principal of the BIA.

The academy was proofed against most of the negative impacts of the COVID-19 mandated closures beginning in March.

“Luckily with BIA, we were ready from the get-go,” Wruble said. “We were already doing remote learning.”

Without the in-person aspect for the remainder of the 2020 school year, students still engaged through Zoom and Skype with instructors as they needed. Wruble stressed the importance of teachers checking in with students and having personal interaction as a must have for student success.

“We never anticipated it would be for a pandemic,” Wruble said. “We were built for this.”

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