Holt schools returns to in-person class, commit to student health

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One week prior to students returning to in-person classes, The Holt Public Schools Board of Education met March 8 to discuss student health. Board members came up with in-person and remote options with an opportunity to switch in mid-April.

Along with wearing masks, students returning to the schools March 15 were to have three-sided Plexiglas barriers on desks. Students are restricted to their classrooms during the beginning and end of the school day, and they won’t have access to traditional lockers. School security will help maintain social distancing and other COVID-19 protocols. Teachers will work with in-person students and will maintain an online presence for students at home.

Holt Superintendent David Hornak said the district’s elementary and middle schools will be about 50-60% capacity, while the junior and senior high schools will operate about at 40% capacity. He said it should be possible to maintain social distancing at these levels.

Hornak said that in mid-April, students would have an opportunity to switch into or out of in-person classes until the end of the school year. Should a student or classroom have a confirmed or probable case of COVID-19, he in-person classwork will shift back online until safety can be assured.

Since last year, Holt has seen some increase in class failure rates and in the number of individual reading plans for K-3 students, as well as a decrease in attendance. Jessica Cotter, executive director of curriculum, said Holt’s challenges are similar to those in urban schools and these are likely intensified by online learning.

Cotter said some statistics, such as attendance, are difficult to compare to previous years because different metrics are being looked at now that students are online. Even so, Cotter said, the pandemic and online learning have impacted students across the board.

The district said it hopes to offer learning and credit recovery programs to students at the end of the school year and over the summer.

Helping the whole child

“The natural progression of this conversation around attendance and failure rates, when you get to the why, you start to unpack some of the reasons that students don’t feel motivated at school,” said Cotter. She said the district is hoping to attend “to the whole child” by helping address issues such as racism – which the school board has declared a public health crisis – and inequity.

“We’ve had a diversity task force for the bulk of the time that I’ve been in the district,” said Hornak. “But it hasn’t been as organized and energized as I’ve seen it in the last year, and I think we can point to many of the events of 2020 that have energized this group into making real change.”

Holt’s Equity and Access Team recently hosted two prominent black authors, Nikki Grimes and Kwame Alexander, as part of a virtual reading assembly. Last month, the district organized its first-ever art festival celebrating Black History Month.

“What is really spectacular is … many of our students were finally able to see themselves in an assembly,” said Hornak.

The district said it’s also committed to supporting students’ mental health. Hornak said office hours are available for students to talk about how they feel. In addition, he co-hosts a podcast with students as a way to hear about their experiences.

“We know this last year has created some anxiety for our students, it’s potentially created some opportunities for (depression and loneliness) to come forward,” said Hornak. “We are focusing on how we can best support our students who return face-to-face and how we can best support our students who plan to remain in a virtual classroom setting.”

The district is looking to hire a director of equity and inclusion as well as more counselors and social workers in time for next school year.

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The school board approved the purchases of two new school buses and more than 400 Chromebooks. Hornack said the laptop purchase will allow the district to provide one laptop for every student as well as have backup computers available in classes.

The school board also approved a change of publisher for the Holt High School yearbook from Herff Jones to Jostens. Michelle Fulton, the teacher who oversees the yearbook’s production, said the switch will provide better resources and experiences for students.

“Kids want to be photographers, they want to be graphic designers,” said Fulton. “We have to have those 21st century skills, we have to allow them the opportunity to learn those skills with the proper software.”