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Niles Community School board approves return to school plan

NILES — The Niles Community School board of education met for a virtual, special meeting Thursday evening. The meeting was hosted on Zoom, and attracted nearly 100 participants, as the board voted unanimously to approve the Niles COVID-19 Preparedness and Response Plan.

Three teachers, Katherine Elsner and Timothy Tobin from Niles High School, and Sally Irons, from Southside, submitted their concerns and questions to the board for their consideration.

“I want you to remember that the decision you make tonight impact the lives of the people who are most at risk, and who are most vulnerable,” Elsner said.

Elsner shared the results of a survey sent to individuals working in the school system. She cited numbers that represented the staff members who had health concerns themselves or health concerns of loved ones at home that elevated their worry about exposure to COVID-19.

“I am urging the school board to return to school remotely,” she said. “I’ve read the plan. We’ve been talking through it. If we aren’t going to start remotely, then I urge you to move into a remote learning environment as quickly as possible to protect the lives of our staff and students.”

Tobin mirrored Elsner’s concerns, but asked about the mask requirement for students, and how educators were to go about enforcing the requirements.

Irons, an Emotionally Impaired Educator,  expressed her concerns were not with the number of students in her classroom, but how she would be able to do her job effectively and keep the students safe. She cited her own personal health issues that gave her doubts about the safety of returning to a school environment.

“I also work with at-risk students,” she said. “They have struggled through the past spring, but I did my best to be there for them.”

She expressed concern about the droplet travel distance potentially being further than 6 feet, especially with students that have behavioral challenges.

“These are kids I am trained to prevent doing damage to themselves or others, which causes close contact,” she said. “That is where my concern lies.”

Following the concerns voiced at the beginning, superintendent Dan Applegate went over a few of the changes to the Niles Community Schools COVID-19 Preparedness and Response Plan the board would vote on after.

“All the [Berrien County school] superintendents meet with the Berrien County Health Department every week,” Applegate said. “We ask them if it’s safe to start school based on the metrics that [they] have in the county. They say it is. As long as [we are] putting in the requirements of the [Return to School] Roadmap.”

Applegate said students in the sixth to 12th grade were already required to wear masks, but after discussions with teachers and staff, the administration had decided to tighten up the wording and strongly encourage masks for students kindergarten to fifth grade.

The county is currently operating under Phase 4 of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s reopening plan. The phase, titled “Improving,” is the phase where an area stays when COVID-19 “cases, hospitalization and deaths are clearly declining” according to the Michigan Safe Start Plan.

Applegate outlined the administration had agreed that if restrictions loosen, and the county moves into Phase 5, “Containing,” the restrictions and requirements within the schools will relax at a slower pace, in case they would need to return to a Phase 4 level of precaution soon after.

The Niles Community Schools plan also outlines a phase-in approach to the first week of in-person instruction, for students returning to the school buildings.

On Aug. 31 and Sept. 1, the school will host parent-teacher-student meetings so that parents and students can be prepared for the protocols within the in-person learning environment, as well as be prepared for a remote-transition.

“If we have to go from in-person to remote [instruction], as early as the following week, at least we know we have given the parents the learning opportunities to be able to help the child at home,” Applegate said.

On Sept. 3 and 4, a portion of the students will report to the buildings.

“This is an opportunity for us to practice our protocols on those days without all of the students necessarily there,” Applegate said. “It will give us the opportunity to fix what needs to be fixed.”

Then, after Labor Day weekend, on Tuesday, Sept. 8, classes will begin.

“The details of that plan will be posted on the website,” Applegate said. “If we run into hitches that first week of school, Sept. 8 might look different.”

Hygiene, cleaning, spacing, lunch and transportation protocols are all included in the COVID-19 Preparedness and Response Plan. The plan will be updated and posted to the Niles Community Schools website.

“The Berrien County Health Department has seen the plan. They approve of the plan and agree with the plan,” Applegate said. “I appreciate everyone’s input into the plan. It really does take a community. I understand the hesitancy and frustration. I’m not trying to convince anyone of anything, I’m just sharing the information that we have and why the recommendation is for this plan and this reopening phasing for the school year.”

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