When Fremont Public Schools developed its return-to-school blueprint ahead of the fall semester last July, Superintendent Mark Shepard said he knew the district had a solid foundation for the upcoming year.
The district had just come off a difficult end to the 2019-20 year, which saw FPS switch to remote learning in March due to an indefinite closure spurred by the threat of COVID-19.
The blueprint detailed a number of scenarios for the district as it prepared for in-person instruction. Those plans ranged from enhanced screening practices to a virtual learning component to a harder stance on mask requirements within school buildings.
In all, Shepard said he knew the plan the district developed was a smart one, but no amount of preparation could prepare the school for the nagging uncertainty that came with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There was a lot of uncertainty about how long it would last and whether we’d be able to stay with all the students in class all the time or if we’d have to move to kind of a hybrid model or even go fully remote like we were last spring,” he said.
In the blueprint’s original plans, the district would consider transitioning to that hybrid or fully remote teaching model should the Three Rivers Public Health Department’s Risk Dial move into a high orange or red level, which corresponds to a “high” and severe risk level in the community, respectively.
That threat eventually came to FPS’s doorstep throughout the semester as the community risk dial teetered on the edge of “high” and “severe in November.
But, fluidity was always a central part of the district’s plan to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 in the district, Shepard said. Upon recommendation from Three Rivers Health Department, the district kept its doors open to students.
Rather than seeing the district mirror the positivity rate among the community, it remained relatively consistent throughout the fall semester.
“Although we saw some cases rise, we never really got to a very high level of positivity within the school district,” Shepard said. “Some of that probably has to do with the age of the students, but we also didn’t see the positivity rate rise amongst our staff.”
The highest one-week total for positive tests at FPS was 20 on the week ending on Dec. 11. That represents around .4% of the school’s 4,789 students.
More so, Shepard said the district only experienced one incident where transmission of the virus could be traced back to the school.
The school hasn’t experienced a single case where spread has been tied back to physical activities or performing arts, either.
“Now, I will say that we’ve had to quarantine a couple of our teams along the way and that had nothing to do with what they were doing on the court,” Shepard said.
Shepard said the lack of exposure to the virus throughout the semester has been a testament to the work of FPS staff.
“They are individuals who worked with the students to teach the appropriate types of protocols that we were implementing,” he said. “As I mentioned, the first two weeks of school looked quite a bit different than other years because they spent considerable time kind of teaching the process and, beyond that, holding everyone accountable.”
He said a plan is only as effective as the individuals implementing it. Luckily, Shepard said staff had no hesitation stepping up to the plate.
“We shared the plan with the community, we shared the plan with our staff and our staff have just done an unbelievable job of implementing it and keeping everyone safe and keeping the community safe,” he said.
Not every part of the plan translated into practice smoothly. Online learning was a central issue expressed by both teachers and parents alike early in the year.
While the platform was used heavily by families throughout the semester, with the service peaking at 746 active remote learners in September before dropping to around 423 by the end of the semester.
Online learning was an important tool for families, but it didn’t come without growing pains.
Those issues that persisted throughout the first quarter of the school year was the increased workload placed on teachers and parents across all grade levels.
“The challenge is that it is new learning,” Brent Cudly, director of professional learning and federal programs at FPS, said in a November interview. “ ... You know, I feel like everybody understands why we need it, but it certainly can be challenging at times to be focusing on two different groups of kids.”
Fremont Education Association President Doug Sheppard said online learning provides different challenges for teachers across all grade levels. When dealing with in-person learners, virtual learners and even hybrid students who are transitioning back and forth between the two mediums due to quarantine, Sheppard said time management has become a consistent area of concern.
“I think one of the things that our teachers want me to communicate with our administration is to keep letting them know, whether it’s our school board or administration, that they do need more time,” he said.
Sheppard said he is planning on meeting with administration throughout winter break to focus on areas of improvement for the spring semester.
“I think we all feel very comfortable, or more comfortable now than what we did at the beginning of the school year, with either COVID protocols with the social distancing and masking and the cleaning,” he said. “So the main issue, I think, is the time.”
Even with slight hitches in the road, Sheppard said the school district navigated the semester better than anybody could have anticipated.
“I think there were a lot of questions from everybody, not only the teachers, but from the administration as well,” Sheppard said in reference to the outlook at the beginning of the semester. “You know, I look back and if you would have asked me back in August if we would still have been in school in December, I probably would have said no.”
He said the unknowns and concerns about time commitments for teachers brought forward variables that clouded the path to a successful semester. However, Sheppard said those doubts were quickly cast aside thanks to work from the FPS Board of Education and school administration.
“The school board and administration has done a great job of listening to our concerns,” he said.
Whether it be forming the COVID-19 Communications Committee to allow teachers comments and concerns to reach administration or utilizing the district’s substitute teacher pool effectively, Sheppard said district leadership has been dedicated to working through the pandemic throughout the semester.
“I think with the continued efforts of our parents, our students, our community members, teachers and everybody involved, I really feel that we can make it through the whole year,” he said. “That would be a great goal and I really feel confident that we can do that with everybody’s help.”
As the light at the end of the pandemic’s tunnel becomes slightly clearer thanks to the recent emergency authorization and distribution of two COVID-19 vaccines, Shepard said he is hopeful the district will soon be able to put the virus behind it.
“I think the good news is that we’ve learned a lot, we were probably positioned better than some of our counterparts across the state because of what we’ve learned during the flood a year and a half ago,” he said. “We had our warm up, I guess I would say, with the flood, but it really taught us how important it is to take care of our students, our families, the community and ourselves.”
That, Shepard said, has been a blessing on its own.
“Through this is the opportunity for our staff to really step up and serve and they’ve risen to that opportunity,” he said.