SCHOOL START – Oscoda Area Schools students came back to start the 2020-21 school year with a variety of learning choices due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, including blended and online learning.

by Christen Kelley

OSCODA – After months of planning and anticipation, students returned to Iosco County schools last month for the first time since the pandemic shuttered schools in March.

But while parents, teachers and students anxiously awaited the return to the classroom, local school leaders say it’s been a smooth transition.

“On the first day, I made a concerted effort to ask how it’s going, and the general consensus was that it’s going better than expected, and that’s from kids and from adults,” Oscoda Area Schools Superintendent Scott Moore said. “There’s lots of challenges associated with it, but whenever we’ve exceeded expectations that’s a good thing.”

Oscoda families were given the option to choose between in person or virtual learning, or a blend of the two. While the numbers are ever-changing, Scott said the latest data shows 52 percent of students had chosen the face-to-face option, 18 percent chose blended and 30 percent chose virtual school. 

“We’re fortunate that we’re able to offer all the options, but regardless of what option they choose, they’re in a different environment than they’re used to being in,” Scott said. 

All students are learning from home on Fridays — just one of the many changes students who physically attend school are experiencing. They also are required to wear face coverings throughout the school day, and the younger classes are cohorted to avoid mixing large groups of students. 

Tawas Area Schools are utilizing similar methods to keep students and staff safe, although blended learning was not offered. Superintendent John Klinger said the number of students who chose in-person learning is around 74 percent, with the remaining 26 percent learning completely from home. 

Klinger said some of the social distancing measures in schools included expanded lunch periods, reduced locker visits, one-way floor markings, plexiglass barriers and reserved seats. 

“As far as the first week or two, I think our advanced planning helped us prepare for the logistics,” Klinger said. “We’re still watching to see if we need to tweak things, but it’s been a very successful reopening.”

One of the challenges with responding to the pandemic is that the situation is always changing, leading school leaders to adapt their plans. The Michigan High School Athletics Association’s latest announcement allowing high school football to continue with a fall season is just one example of how the districts will need to continue planning and preparing to keep everyone safe.

“It’s just a rollercoaster from the top levels down,” Scott said. “But we’re going to do everything we can to make sure our teachers are able to deliver instruction, whether it’s virtual, face to face or blended — it’s a transition period for everybody.”

Klinger says having such a smooth reopening was a team effort. Right now the district is in phase four of its five-phase reopening plan, which allows for face-to-face learning five days a week, but there are still restrictions on large gatherings and field trips. 

“We have teachers, administration, department heads — it doesn’t matter what title they carry, what role they play, everyone has worked extremely hard and I’m very appreciative,” he said. “There’s a lot that’s unpredictable as far as where we’ll be as a state, but we’re watching the numbers and we’re moving forward.”

Due to construction delays, Whittemore-Prescott Area Schools pushed back the first day of school until Monday, Sept. 14. Kindergarteners will have a staggered start to the school year, with last names A-J beginning on Sept. 14, last names K-P starting on Sept. 15, and last names Q-Z starting on Sept. 16.