APPLEGATE: Niles Community Schools readies for the school year

Throughout the summer, Niles Community Schools teachers, staff and administrators have been working tirelessly to prepare for a safe return to the 2020-21 school year, and the first day of school is nearly upon us. Based on the guidance of the Berrien County Health Department and the governor’s Return to School Roadmap, we have implemented new safety protocols to provide students, teachers and staff with a safe learning environment. We have also had countless conversations with parents and teachers after the release of our preliminary plans that have helped guide our decisions for the school year.

Earlier this month, the district shared its final return to school plan, which includes district-wide safety measures and learning protocols, as well as a robust plan for online learning through the district’s Virtual Vikings program. Based on feedback from parents, teachers and staff, we have also modified our plans for the first week of school.

To ease into in-person learning — for those families who have selected it — we will host parent-teacher conferences on Monday, Aug. 31 and Tuesday, Sept. 1. Following these conferences, our buildings will operate at roughly half capacity on Wednesday, Sept. 2 and Thursday, Sept. 3. While this first week of school is far from tradition, this approach ensures all students, teachers and staff are comfortable with all new protocols before our full return to in-person learning the second week of school.

Virtual students — known as Virtual Vikings — will receive the same high-quality education that students and families have come to expect from the district. This is the perfect option for families that did not feel 100 percent comfortable with the in-person model at this time. We want to stress that Virtual Vikings are Niles Community Schools students. They will receive the same curriculum, be able to partake in extracurricular activities — including clubs and sports — and they can easily transfer back to in-person learning at a later time when they feel comfortable.

As always, safety remains the district’s primary focus as we move forward with the 2020-21 school year, and we have implemented reliable cleaning protocols, including equipment commonly used in health care facilities. These rigorous standards apply to classrooms, offices, athletic facilities, food preparation areas, common areas and hard surfaces in every building.

Through a 2015 bond, the district was able to upgrade its HVAC system, which will ensure air is refreshed six to eight times per hour and make wearing masks more tolerable. Throughout the school year, all learning environments will be deep-cleaned, and custodial staff will receive regular training to ensure that these procedures are effective and efficient.

We appreciate the community’s patience and flexibility as we finalized our return to school plan. We look forward to seeing the smiling faces of our students — whether online or in-person — in the coming days. As always, thank you and Go Vikes!

Dr. Dan Applegate is the superintendent of Niles Community Schools.

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