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Despite rising COVID-19 cases, Dowagiac schools vote to return to in-person learning

DOWAGIAC — Dowagiac Union Schools students will be returning to full-time, in-person instruction beginning Monday, Oct. 12.

The DUS Board of Education voted 6-1 in support of the decision during a special meeting outside of Dowagiac Middle School Monday.

The return to in-person instruction is contingent upon the district ensuring that all proper health and safety protocols are in place, and that there are no major case spikes over the next two weeks.

The district will continue to offer a virtual, cyberlearning experience throughout the full semester for families who do not feel comfortable sending their children back to school.

In August, the board approved a five-week distance learning start to the school year, with a reassessment after three weeks. The school district surveyed both parents and staff over the course of the past three weeks. According to Superintendent Jonathan Whan, 574 parents representing 1,020 students responded to the parent survey, with 75 percent of parents supporting a return to in-person instruction. Sixty-six percent of staff supported a return to in-person instruction.

Several dozen parents, staff and community members braved the cold, windy elements to attend Monday’s meeting. The board opened the floor to those in attendance to be able to voice their concerns to the board in three-minute intervals.

“I believe that in-person learning is best not only for my children, but probably for most kids,” said parent Kyle Bennett. “My daughter misses going to school and she loves being in class. I’m not going to minimize the kids seeing each other, but I more just want a good education for my daughter. The online learning has been more distracting than anything else. I would just like to get back to somewhat of a normality for our children.”

“I am personally concerned about going back face-to-face now due to the increase in cases in our community,” said Justice Gage Elementary School teacher Emily Hudson. “Several businesses have had to close due to exposure or high case numbers. As a kindergarten teacher, I worry that challenges and the inability to move around their space will lead to never before seen challenges with behavior. I urge the school board and administration to come up with a plan with intervention supports in order for this to be a successful return when it happens.”

When it was time for the board to make its decision, it became clear that the board and the majority of the audience were on the same page.

“After listening to the speakers, reading 16 parent comments and nine staff comments, we need to go back Oct. 12,” said board trustee Ronald Jones. “We’ll make adjustments for some of the problems that we’ll see as they come. There’s no guarantee that there’s not going to be a bigger spike of COVID, but we’ll have to deal with it as it occurs.”

“There is no perfect solution to the problem that we’re dealing with,” said board trustee Tracey Hatcher. “The best we can do is come up with what we think is best for the kids as well as the community. In doing this, we’re going to need parents’ help because it’s going to start at home. The kids that have a problem with wearing masks, we’re just gonna have to coach them because it’s part of what we’re dealing with right now.”

Vice president Ruth Ausra voted against the return due to concerns regarding an uptick in COVID-19 cases in and around Dowagiac, but insisted that she supports the board’s decision.

“I am in full support of the board’s decision,” Ausra said. “I want you all to know that, and I will do whatever I can do. I am with you guys. I am just so concerned about our situation the last three weeks with our COVID cases, but I’m with the whole board.”

Confirmed cases of COVID-19 have continued to rise in Cass County in recent weeks. According to Whan, one DUS staff member tested positive for COVID-19 last week and some staff members have been quarantined after coming into contact with positive cases. Whan said the COVID-positive staff member is doing well.

“This has given us the chance to practice protocol,” Whan said. “Our individual is doing well and is able to administer distance learning from home for the students. COVID is here, and we’re gonna have to learn how to function smartly and efficiently with it to continue because in-person instruction — kids in school — is where they learn the best.”

The district will announce its safety protocols in the coming weeks, but Whan said parents and staff can expect an increase in custodial staff to accommodate a strict, thorough cleaning schedule.

“The executive order requires touch points to be hit multiple times during the day,” Whan said. “We have custodians in every building during the day, and we will be bringing in extra people for at least the first month to make sure that we have everything figured out.”

The district purchased eight electrostatic sprayers in the spring to disinfect its buildings. In August, the board accepted the recommendation to purchase plexiglass dividers to be used in cafeterias when in-person learning resumes. The plexiglass will sit on the lunch tables to create cubicles that prevent droplets from spreading.

“We made the decision to order plexiglass to increase separation while kids are eating,” Whan said. “It wasn’t a requirement, but something as a district that we thought was another example of us trying to be as safe as we can.”

The district also ordered plexiglass for elementary classrooms.

“In elementary classrooms, there is a lot of small group instruction,” Whan said. “We ordered them so that there is a divider between the teacher and the students. That way, they can continue small group instruction while having a physical barrier.”

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