TAWAS CITY – Even before Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order which shut down all schools in the state from March 13 to April 5 in order to slow the spread of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), school districts in Iosco County were proactively addressing issues related to the outbreak. 

On March 6, Tawas Area Schools (TAS) Superintendent John Klinger sent a letter addressed to staff and families in response to growing concerns about the illness. The letter, which appeared on the school district’s website, provided hyperlinks to information from the Michigan Dept. of Health and Human Services and from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) about COVID-19.

The TAS letter included a list of common-sense, best practice measures recommended by local health officials to help prevent the spread of the virus:

• Wash hands frequently with soap and water.

• If soap and water are unavailable, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol.

• Cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough.

• Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.

• Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces

• Avoid contact with people who are sick

• Stay home when you are sick.

The letter also sought to assure readers that the “District is prepared to intensify cleaning practices throughout our buildings and will follow all the directions provided by public health to prevent and limit the virus.”

On March 10, Hale Area School Superintendent Robert Colby sent a similar letter to his district which disseminated the same information. Colby closed his letter with the statement, “While education is important, the health and well-being of our students and staff are far more significant. We are optimistic that with your help and dedication to excellent hygiene practices our students and staff will remain healthy throughout the year.”

Oscoda Area Schools (OAS) posted their district’s Approach to COVID-19 Preparedness on their website. That statement disclosed that OAS would be “more closely monitoring attendance of our students and staff to identify any elevated trends in reports of illness.” The district also said that ill students would be “segregated until transportation home can be arranged for them to avoid unnecessary exposure.” Increased access for disinfectants and sanitizers was also pledged.

With reports of new cases on the rise in the state, TAS issued another letter on March 12 informing the public that a number of events and programs would be affected. Cancellations included the Fine Arts Trip to New York and all remaining Middle School Volleyball games. All assemblies and performances, and any before and after school event where attendance would exceed 100 were suspended. The letter also outlined additional enhanced cleaning and sanitizing measures, including sanitizing school buses. Klinger asked people to “develop a plan for your family in the event schools were to close for an extended period of time.”

On the evening of March 12, Whitmer ordered schools to be closed until April 5.

Focus shifted immediately from classroom and facility issues to food distribution, since so many students rely upon breakfasts and lunches provided by the schools. After informing staff, students, parents, and the general public about the governor’s executive order, each district in the county published their plans to help feed their students.

Klinger issued a press release on March 13 announcing plans to “provide food at least two times a week during the next three weeks to help relieve any burdens that the school closure may have caused our families.” 

Take home breakfasts and lunches were to be available from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on March 17, 19, 24, 26, 31, and April 2. Families would receive the meals by accessing the High School/Middle School parking lot, where school staff and volunteers deliver packaged food to their vehicles. According to Klinger, 163 meals were handed out on March 17, and 300 more on March 19.

Oscoda Area Schools announced twice-weekly distributions on Mondays and Wednesdays beginning March 18. OAS Superintendent Scott Moore shared an email from Michael Barnhart that indicated more than 200 meals were distributed on March 18. Barnhart’s email also outlined plans for “satellite” distribution starting Monday, March 23. Prepackaged breakfasts and lunches can be picked up between 11:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. at various prearranged locations.

Families are instructed to contact Barnhart via email at barnhartm@oscodaschools.org or leave a voice mail message at 989-639-2033 to identify the number of students needing food and the preferred pickup location so that enough food can be sent to each location.

Moore said that he “appreciates the huge outpouring of support from the community” during this situation.

Hale Area Schools made meals available Wednesday and Friday from 12:00 to 4:30 p.m. during the week of March 16-20. Hale Superintendent Robert Colby said the 300 meals were handed out on the first day. According to the district’s school closure operational plans on their website, the following two weeks, March 23-April 23, meals will be available Tuesday and Friday from noon to 4:30 p.m. Meals will include all students and families served by Hale Area Schools, including Early Head Start and Great Start Readiness students. Meals will be made available to all children. Colby added that meals availability during the district’s scheduled spring break would be determined in the near future.

Hale’s plan includes making the district’s Food Pantry available to any students and families that would like to receive food items. Days and time for the Food Pantry will be the same as pick up times for meals, but entry to the Pantry will be at the front of the building at the southeast entrance.

Whittemore-Prescott Area Schools (WPAS) also announced food distribution plans on their website. From March 16 through April 3, food will be distributed on Monday through Friday, limited to one sack lunch per person per day, at the following times and locations:

• 11 a.m. - Rosati’s parking lot

• 11:30 a.m. – 3 County Club

• 12 p.m. – Prescott Library

• 2:30 P.M. – Methodist Church, Downtown Whittemore.

WPAS Superintendent Joseph Perrera was unavailable for comment as of press time. However, his statement on the district’s website read, “So many of our students rely on the school for healthy meals and we feel it is important that we continue to feed students in our community.”

As to instruction, only Hale Schools called for students to receive and complete assignments from their teachers. Colby said that teachers have organized student packets and will be using Google Classroom to accommodate their needs. The website instructed students grade 7-12 to pick up their Chromebooks, which will be needed to access instructional assignments from their teachers, from school during normal business hours. Instructional materials can be picked up starting March 18 in the cafeteria between noon and 4:30 p.m.

Hale’s third marking period will end on April 3 as originally planned and report cards will be mailed as usual.

The website went on to say, “There are areas in our community where students and families can access Wi-Fi for connectivity for instructional activities on the Chromebooks. We encourage families to find access ASAP. Contact your local internet providers for possible discounted rates during this time.” When asked about a perceived lack on internet access within the school district, Colby stated that there was a 94 percent connectivity rate, including families who were using their cellular telephones as Wi-Fi hot spots.

Tawas and Oscoda did not mandate student assignments during the shutdown. Both Klinger and Moore cited lack of internet access for making online learning impractical at this time. Moore said, “It must be accessible to every single student.”

On the Oscoda website, an announcement from Charter offering free access to Spectrum broadband and Wi-Fi for 60 days for new K-12 and college student households was posted. Families interested in enrolling in this service were advised to call (844) 488-8395.

On March 18, Whitmer signed another executive order allowing public bodies to meet electronically under certain criteria designed to maintain transparency. Public bodies must meet the following criteria when holding a public meeting electronically:

• Ensue two-way communication for members of the public to hear and address each other.

• Provide adequate notice to the public of the meeting.

• Post a public meeting notice on their website.

• Permit participants to record or broadcast the public meeting.

• Allow participants to address the public body during a public comment period.

When asked whether his district would take advantage of the governor’s order for school board meetings, Moore said that Oscoda is already preparing for such an event. Colby stated that the Hale IT department was involved in that process. Klinger thanked the governor for her consideration, but deferred a decision until the length of the shutdown was determined.