GRPS to go virtual for beginning of school year

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Grand Rapids Public Schools will not start the beginning of its 2020-2021 school year with in-person learning.

Instead, the first nine weeks of the school year will be held virtually, GRPS teachers confirmed to News 8 Monday morning and the district confirmed during an afternoon press conference.

However, GRPS Superintendent Leadriane Roby said during the briefing that the plan may shift based on the status of the coronavirus outbreak.

“Once school is underway and if we are deciding or seeing that we are able to do hybrid or in-person, we will also look at that moving forward. This is our initial plan and what we’re recommending today but it could possibly change,” Roby said.

The district reached its plan after a June survey of parents found 71% of them felt distance learning would be safest. Another survey earlier this month found 48% of parents preferred distance learning, 26% a hybrid option of in-person and virtual classes and 25% preferred only in-person learning. A little more than half of staff members also said they wanted distance learning.

“I think that’s excellent. My son, he did really good this past Spring, so I think that worked well with him,” said E’lla Webber a GRPS parent who has a son entering 5th grade. “I’m not sure if it worked well with all students. But as long as parents keep up with their child and keep them off of the games, I think they will be fine with the virtual learning. And it’s also safe — it’s safe for all of our students.”

“We said that the health, safety and the well-being of our students and staff would be our top priority in our decision-making,” Roby said. “I believe starting with distance learning is practicing what we preach and is by far our safest approach to the start of the 2020-21 school year.”

The first nine weeks of school accounts for the first marking period, which ends Oct 21. During the first period, Roby said the district will “continuously assess our decision” and will work out plans for shifting to hybrid or in-person learning.

“I think this is the right choice. Like Dr. Roby says, we are really concerned about the students and families too,” said Cara Glass, a pre-K teacher at Buchanan Elementary. “All of the staff and all of the students go home to families, so it’s not just what is happening in that building, it’s what’s happening in the community that we have to be cautious about.”

>>Online: Press conference in English and Espanol

GRPS said each student will get the devices they need to take classes and the district will ensure kids can get online, including the distribution of hot spots. There are plans to give kindergarten through first grade students tablets. Students in second through 12th grade will receive laptops.

The district is preparing “digital literacy training” for parents so they can help their kids through the start of school. A Family Helpdesk will be available to provide technical support and troubleshoot connection problems. It will be available by phone at 616.819.2000 or distancelearninghelpdesk@grps.org.

Physical packets will be available as a backup or for kids with special needs “where online learning is not the best option for our most vulnerable students.” Teachers are getting professional development to help them to tackle distance learning, Roby said.

“Grand Rapids teachers are incredible. All teachers are incredible,” Glass said. “We go through a lot of training and a lot of certification to have the honor of working in these classrooms, and we will take it all in stride and do our best.”

More details will become available at the school board’s Academic Achievement Committee meeting on Aug. 5. There will also be a virtual town hall meeting that day from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Roby said students will be able to participate in athletics this fall, saying GRPS will follow guidelines from the Michigan High School Athletic Association and mandates from the state. Practices will be closed and spectators won’t be allowed at games.

The district is also working to develop a plan for food distribution. Officials say they plan to make lunch and breakfast available to students.

Roby said that to make the virtual learning work, GRPS will need “continued flexibility and support” from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the state Legislature in regards to per-pupil counts, average daily attendance and instructional days and hours.

—News 8’s Whitney Burney and Heather Walker contributed to this report.

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