Dowagiac Union Schools to move K-8 students to distance learning Nov. 23

DOWAGIAC — Dowagiac Union Schools Board of Education unanimously voted to move K-8 students to distance learning next week in response to the rapidly increasing number of positive COVID-19 cases in Cass County and communities within the school district during its monthly meeting Monday at Dowagiac Middle School.

The plan includes transitioning to distance learning for elementary and middle school students beginning Monday, Nov. 23 and ending Tuesday, Dec. 8. DUS students would then return to in-person instruction from Wednesday, Dec. 9 to Friday, Dec. 18 before the holiday break begins, unless otherwise instructed by the district or state health department.

The school board will re-evaluate the situation during its Dec. 14 meeting to decide whether or not to utilize in-person or distance learning after the holiday break.

“The board has been working to do what they feel is best for the community,” said Superintendent Jonathan Whan. “It is very challenging. They’ve listened to the public. The seven people on our board care for our community very much. They are faced with difficult decisions and are doing the best they can with the information they have received.”

The announcement comes after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services prohibited in-person learning at high schools for three weeks starting Wednesday as part of an effort to combat the recent statewide spike in cases. Elementary and middle schools are allowed to conduct in-person learning if the district allows it, due to lower rates of infection spread in K-8 districts compared to high schools and colleges.

The result of the vote was met with applause from several of those in attendance, including teachers who took the podium to voice their concerns over the lack of available staff due to COVID.

As of Monday, the Van Buren/Cass District Health Department reported 1,455 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 27 deaths.

“What isn’t being announced or published is how many staff members are quarantined from each building and how this is leaving buildings with short staffs on a regular basis,” said Justus Gage Elementary School second grade teacher Sarah Proctor. “Our planning time to prepare for teaching, contact parents and clean is being used to cover other teachers and don’t have substitutes. Our principals are taking the roles of stand-in teachers on a regular basis because we are so short-staffed. Rotating adults in and out of a classroom on a single day is unproductive.”

The lack of cleaning supplies and custodial staff was another issue brought up during the meeting.

“We do not have all the extra cleaning that was promised,” said Justus Gage Kindergarten teacher Emily Hudson. “Not all the cleaning is able to get done at critical times, and it needs to be sanitized and disinfected even more. As teachers, we are discouraged from speaking up a lot, and it feels like our voices do not matter.”

Dowagiac Union High School is set to begin distance learning on Wednesday, per state mandate. The school board chose Nov. 23 over Nov. 18 to begin distance learning for K-8 to allow teachers and staff members proper time to prepare for the transition.

“Our staff have been beat up,” said DUS Board of Education president Larry Schmidt. “We’ve got to make sure that we have time to provide instruction. We want to get the wheels back on the car and get our staff realigned to a point where they can take care of their families, deal with their jobs and their students.”

While the board acknowledged that in-person learning is the preferred form of teaching for students, teachers and staff, the rise in area COVID cases and the temporary shutdown of three DUS buildings in recent weeks led the board to make its decision.

Board member Ronald Jones, once a supporter of face-to-face learning, has since changed his mind.

“I read many of the letters that were sent online,” Jones said. “I was surprised to learn that some kids were not coming to school because their parents were afraid to send them. Everyone is weary. As we near Dec. 8, we can take a look to see if there are any positive signs in terms of case numbers. We’re hoping that sooner or later people are going to care enough to save people my age.”

In other business, the board reconfirmed its COVID-19 plan, which must be reconfirmed every month.

“This is the monthly action the board of education is required to make as a part of the schooling fund that was passed this fall,” Whan said. “Each month, we will be bringing this to the board to recommit to the plan we set for the district.”

The district’s COVID-19 plan adheres to the guidelines listed in Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Safe Schools Return to School Roadmap, which the district will continue to follow despite Whitmer’s executive orders being struck down by the Michigan Supreme Court.

The plan includes the district’s responses to different scenarios, including having to transition to brief periods of distance learning in the event of new positive COVID-19 cases in the district.

The reconfirmation of the plan, as well as changes to the plan, must be submitted to the Michigan Department of Education each month.

The COVID-19 plan in its entirety can be found on the district’s website.

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