Brandywine reviews reopening plan

NILES — As the first day of school draws nearer, area school districts have been drafting plans to reopen their doors safely amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Monday, Brandywine Community Schools discussed those plans with the community.

Monday evening, the Brandywine Board of Education met virtually to discuss back-to-school plans in the wake of COVID-19. The meeting, which allowed for board and community comments, outlined the district’s plans for reopening under the different phases of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s MI Safe Start plan. Districts are required to submit three different plans for different stages of the state’s reopening — one for fully remote work, one for returning with strict restrictions and one with more relaxed protocols and additional flexibility — to the state by Aug. 15.

“A lot of work has gone into this plan, and it is based on ever-changing information,” said Brandywine Superintendent Karen Weimer, who noted that the plan was drafted with input from the Berrien County Health Department to follow all recommended guidelines. “We want this to be a safe and successful year for all of our students.”

Currently, the lower part of the state is in phase four of Whitmer’s MI Safe Start plan, which will require schools that are reopening to in-person learning to follow strict protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Under the district’s current plan for reopening, all staff and students, except for kindergarten through fifth-grade students, will be required to wear facial coverings indoors. All students, regardless of grade, will be required to wear a facial covering on the bus. Individuals who claim a medical exception to facial coverings will need to meet with school administration to provide rationale and documentation.

In addition to requiring facial coverings, Weimer said the schools would increase its hygiene and sanitization protocols with frequent cleanings, newly installed hand sanitizer locations and by encouraging staff and students to wash their hands with soap and water every two to three hours.

Though 6 feet of social distance is not feasible inside Brandywine classrooms, Weimer said students and staff would be kept at as great a distance as possible from others.

To help slow the spread of COVID-19, parents will be expected to take their student’s temperature and symptom check before they leave the house. If a student is ill, the parent will be expected to withhold their student from riding the bus or going to school.

Weimer said the district would continue to follow all protocols used in phase four in phase five, should the state move into phase five. She added that the district has also put plans where it can move to remote learning very quickly, should it be required to, and that remote learning is available for families who choose to opt for it.

“This is a lot, but eventually it will become routine for us,” Weimer said of the recommended changes. “Is it a lot? Yes. Is it something we can do? Most certainly. It’s going to take patience and all of us working together to do this.”

After Weimer concluded the plan’s presentation, several teachers spoke during public comment to express concerns about reopening during the pandemic.

Speaking first, reading specialist Debbie Carew expressed concerns about rising case numbers and the feasibility of enforcing facial coverings. She suggested starting the year virtually, as other districts in the state have done.

“This would offer us more time — time to watch for infection rates, time for this plan to be complete and for us to better equipped and prepared for the new face of in-person instruction,” Carew said. “Most importantly, to ensure no one in our Brandywine family and extended community has the unthinkable happen as a result of contracting this virus by rushing to come together too soon.”

Second-grade teacher Melissa Miller echoed Carew’s sentiments, adding that the lack of required facial coverings for elementary school children poses a risk.

“I know one of the arguments for students returning to school is that students need to socialize and students learn best in a classroom with their teacher. I fully believe this is true,” she said. “But with the extra precautions we need to take, the socialization we so desperately want our children to have is not going to be possible.”

Business teacher Sarah Dye said the new restrictions would make it challenging to conduct programs like Career and Technical Education, as they require collaboration and hands-on learning. She further raised concerns about safety and how parents and students would be held accountable for staying home when sick.

“I know this is ever-changing,” she said. “There are a lot of different people coming from different angles that have these concerns.”

Brandywine is currently scheduled to return to school Aug. 31.

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