The COVID-19 Pandemic's Impact on Williamston Community Schools
This article was last updated on: March 27th 2022
"It is a privilege to rejoin WCS after many months away. It feels like coming home, though home looks and feels different than before. Many things have changed, but... it is clear that our dedication to educational excellence has never been more resolute."
- Dr. Adam Spina in his Superintendent's Blog upon returning to WCS, 10/22/20.
The COVID-19 Pandemic began in December of 2019, and arrived in the USA in January of 2020. Most state governments began to take action in March of 2020 or later, after the number of cases continued to increase exponentially. Williamston High School initially shutdown on March 13th of 2020, and the first case at WCS was announced by the administration on October 13th of 2020. The 2019 - 2020 and 2020 - 2021 school years were heavily disrupted by COVID-19. WCS has lost about 100 students during the 2020 - 2021 school year due to the controversial decision to reopen virtually, but this was more than compensated by a surge in enrollement just before the start of the 2021 - 2022 school year, in which the total student count reached nearly 700 students and a third lunch period had to be implemented. The superintendent of the WCS District, Dr. Spina, was on leave from March of 2020 until October 22nd of 2020 due to his service in the national guard.
While the 2021 - 2022 school year has also been impacted by the pandemic, it is very close to "normal" schooling. Currently, all school buildings in Williamston Community Schools remain open for in-person learning. While the school board came up with its own safety plan for the district, a mask mandate has been required for all buildings since September 7th of 2021, due to public health orders. Cases are reported on the school website for anyone to access.
2019 - 2020 School Year
Shutdown of Williamston High School & Williamston Community Schools (March 2020)
Shutdown of Williamston High School & Williamston Community Schools (March 2020)
On March 12th of 2020, at around 7:45 pm, Dr. Adam Spina released an email to all of the parents of students at WHS. The email stated that "the current recommendation of the Ingham County Health Department has not changed and they DO NOT recommend the closure of K-12 schools at this time". Dr. Spina proceeded to explain that WHS, as well as the rest of Williamston Community Schools, would remain open despite the ongoing pandemic, but "all non-core instructional" activities were indefinitely suspended. However, not even four hours after the first email, Williamston High School sent out a second email, announcing that WHS would be closed after all starting March 16th. This was because Governor Whitmer's ordered the closure all K-12 school buildings.
The next day, March 13th of 2020, at around 5:25am, Dr. Spina released a third email, which was called for the students and staff to take home their personal belongings from their lockers, classrooms, and office/desk spaces at the end of the day on Friday, March 13." This meant the school was closing on March 13th and not March 16th after all. At around 6:30am, Dr. Spina sent out yet another email during March 13th. This email announced that all of WCS will be operating on a half day schedule, which means that the day's only purpose was for students to grab their stuff and leave. The final email for the situation was sent out by Spina once more, at around 5:30pm. This makes the fifth email, and it contained information on additional closures. Kids’ Corner was to be closed after all. Most interestingly, the email hinted that Spring Break may be used as a bargaining chip of sorts in order to earn back some of the lost school days from the pandemic. Typically, WCS can cancel up to 6 days of school a year, which are used primarily for snow days. However, by closing WHS on March 16th until at least Spring Break, far more than 6 days will be used up, meaning that school year could be extended to make up for lost time. This was being discussed because at the time, it was unclear if the state would pardon the lost days due to a school closure, or force school districts to make up the lost time at the end of the year.
The final email for March 13th.
Indefinite Closure of Williamston High School & Williamston Community Schools (March 2020 - April 2020)
Initially, the plan was for WCS to shut down for a few weeks, and then reopen on April 5th, making it a mere 3 week break. Some teachers even supplied a small amount of work to students in the hopes that they would complete it duirng their extended spring break. This plan was quickly derailed as it became clearer that the pandemic was out of control in Michigan during the time period, and that schools would likely not be allowed to reopen for in-person learning. As a result, on March 20th, the administration sent out two emails. One email was sent by Spina to parents, directing them to a "Online Capability Survey". This was the first clue that the administration had plans to move schooling online. However, the second email was from Dr. Delp, and was sent to both parents and students. The email contained lots of useful information. It announced that the SATs would probably be canceled, AP exams were still a thing, Spring Break would still occur, and "all spring activities between now and April 5 are postponed". These emails clarified that sacrificing Spring Break was no longer on the table, and that WCS was planning for the possibility of moving to sonline instruction.
On April 2nd of 2020, Michigan Governor Whitmer announced that all schools will be closed for the rest of the academic year. Williamston High School also canceled and/or indefinitely postponed all after school activities, extra-curriculars, and the senior send-off. This was the final "nail in the coffin" for any hopes of returning to school in-person for the remains of the 2019-2020 school year.
Transition to Remote Learning (April 2020 - June 2020)
On April 10th, Kelly Campbell, the principal of Explorer Elementary, sent out an email to all of the parents in WCS, letting everyone know that plans were all but finalized to transition to a form of online school. Set to begin on Monday, April 20th, all K-12 students were required to participate in some form of remote learning. This would end up being primarily directed through a new website the school district made, and by teachers through Google Classroom. For those who couldn't do remote learning online, they would to be given some sort of alternative work. Mrs. Campbell was serving as interim superintendent at the time, as Dr. Spina had been called to serve in the national guard around late March. She would continue to serve as interim superintendent until Dr. Spina's return.
District Closure Community Update on April 10th of 2020 from Mrs. Campbell, which confirmed that Williamston High School would move to remote instruction on April 20th.
Remote student instruction began on April 20th, as a replacement for regular academic instruction at school. The workload was incredibly minimal. Work was posted a couple times a week on Google Classroom for each class at 8am. No synchronous learning of any kind was required. Final exams were not required. Seniors were allowed to basically graduate immediately if they weren't failing any classes. The school year ended on June 5th, which was the original date school was set to end. The lost school days in March and April were forgiven.
WHS Class Of 2020 Graduation Ceremony
Not only did the seniors have no work, they also had no real graduation. After multiple postponements, Williamston Community Schools finally gave up and released a "Class of 2020 Virtual Graduation" video on the district website. This graduation is a series of videos thrown together to imitate the graduation experience.
Dr. Delp in the virtual graduation video.
2020 - 2021 School Year
Reopening Plan Survey (July 2020)
Reopening Plan Survey (July 2020)
Prior to August, several nearby schools, such as East Lansing Public Schools and Okemos Public Schools, had already announced they would be fully online for the first semester. Williamston Community Schools released three potential plans and sent out a poll to collect opinions. These three options varied from 100% online to 100% in person. Naturally, several people on Facebook decided to manipulate the poorly made Google form by filling out the form dozens of times in an effort to sway it to the 100% in person option. Mrs.Campbell eventually commented on the situation, saying she was "disappointed". Those responsible claimed the school should have done a better job with the form.
School Board Zoom Bombed
On July 20th of 2020, a school board meeting was zoom bombed by an unknown individual. The zoom bomber impersonated interim vice principal Mr. Armour by using his name in the zoom call, and then proceeded to screenshare inappropriate content. Following this incident, Mr. James Doyen, who was a Technology Support Specialist in the district at the time, worked with the school board for all future school board meetings that school year to improve their security.
The administration's statement on the issue.
Initial Reopening Plan
During a school board meeting on July 28th of 2020, the school board voted to begin the school year fully online until at least October 16th. This decision was made partially on the fact that the school district lacked the funds to provide spare masks and adequate sanitation equipment if school were to open. The administration stated time and time again that the new plan would be different and better than the remote learning plan from the previous year. This email was sent out to all parents by the interim superintendent, as Dr. Spina had yet to return:
Return 2 Learn Plan (August 2020 - December 2020)
On August 17th of 2020, Williamston Community Schools released an approved remote learning plan during a school board meeting. This new plan consisted of an asynchronous & synchronous format, with asynchronous learning taking place in the morning, with virtual meetings in the afternoon to supplement the asynchronous material. The first two weeks revolved around a different schedule to get students used to the remote learning experience. This was known officially as the "Return 2 Learn Plan", and apparently other nearby schools used the same name.
The main schedule was this: On Mondays, students had 3 hours and 50 minutes of asynchronous work time for all six of their classes. This was followed by 2 hours and 50 minutes of synchronous google meets calls for all six classes, each 24 minutes long. For Tuesdays and Thursdays, there was 3 hours and 50 minutes of asynchronous work time for the first, second, and third hour classes. This was followed by 2 hours and 20 minutes of synchronous google meets calls for those first three classes, each 40 minutes long. For Wednesdays and Fridays, there was 3 hours and 50 minutes of asynchronous work time for the fourth, fifth, and sixth hour classes. This was followed by 2 hours and 20 minutes of synchronous google meets calls for those last three classes, each 40 minutes long.
On August 26th of 2020, Dr. Delp and Mr. Armour released a 30 minute video explaining the entire plan to students and their families, as well as going through the typical beginning of the school year assembly presentation. Students were expected to watch this video. During this video, Dr. Delp described this plan as "closer to real school". He also claimed "grades will be earned" this time, compared to how students could earn no worse than a 60% grade during the last remote learning system. Dr. Delp also described teacher support sessions, which were scheduled 15 minute appointments with teachers that students could sign up for. There was also "AOH", academic office hours, which seemed to be a virtual successor to AOT. In all, the plan was a significant improvement from the previous Remote Learning system.
According to a school board meeting in September, the Williamston Community Schools District had lost about 100 students announcing the decision to move online for the foreseeable future. This was a trend seen statewide as the year continued.
New Hybrid Plan & Financial Update (October 2020)
On October 5th of 2020, the WCS School Board proposed a new hybrid plan, which would later be voted on and approved in a 9 - 0 vote on October 19th of 2020. This plan was a combination of the remote system mixed in with a new form of in-person instruction. The elementary students were set to return on October 26th and November 2nd, but the middle school and high school situation was a bit more complicated, as much of the equipment necessary for hybrid learning was not installed at the school by the time the agenda was approved. As a result, there was no solid timetable for when 6-12 students would join in on the hybrid plan.
The hybrid plan featured the students split into three groups. The first are A and B, which were the two groups of students that get to attend the school a couple days a week on different days. The third group (C) were students who opted to remain at home 100% of the time, which was about 1/3 of the student body.
A great deal of financial information was also revealed during the school board meetings. For one, it was determined that the school lost $161,064 of funding due to the loss of 100 students, but a ton of federal funding actually resulted in a surplus of $897,426. Additionally, COVID-19 Relief Funds gave the school district $350 per pupil, and an additional $12.32 per pupil from the district. This resulted in a further $691,843 increase, but the vast majority of this must be spent by December 30th of 2020. So in short, the school did not suffer a financial blow during this time period thanks to federal aid. Much of this federal aid was probably spent on installing the cameras and other stuff needed for the hybrid plan.
Phase One Hybrid Plan (December 2020 - February 2021)
The Hybrid Plan was first introduced to the elementary population in November of 2020. However, after only a couple weeks, it was suspended due to a recent outbreak. The administration took advantage of thanksgiving break to make this work. The elementary students were back in hybrid by December of 2020.
The situation for middle and high school students continued to be tentative. Infrastructure delays derailed the entire hybrid plan for them until January of 2021, when it was all finally finished. This infrastructure primarily included new cameras in each classroom, which allowed the remote students to see the classroom. Williamston Middle School opened for hybrid right after winter break concluded (early January), and Williamston High School opened up for hybrid after the first semester concluded (late January).
The hybrid plan consisted of two main sections. It had an asynchronous section in the morning, which worked the same as the previous system. Then in the afternoon, hybrid learning occurred. The lunch break was extended to an hour to allow ample time to eat lunch and then travel to the school. The hybrid students were split into groups "A" and "B", in which only one group would show up each day. These students were "taught" in person, while the rest of the students listened online. There was no real difference in educational quality for hybrid students vs fully online students, as they were given the same tasks and materials. Although, those who were attending in-person did benefit from being able to see their teachers face-to-face.
One of the controversies regarding the hybrid plan was the snow-day policy. In December, Dr. Spina announced that snow-days would no longer cancel school, instead all students would just attend online. This insured the school continued without interruption. Those who supported this policy argued there was no need to cancel school when online infrastructure was already in place, and that the school year already had lower educational quality than usual and should not be hindered any further. Those against it believed snow-days were still beneficial to everyone, and pointed to how other districts were still fully canceling school on snow-days.
Phase Two Hybrid Plan (March 2021 - June 2021)
On March 1st of 2021, Williamston High School and Williamston Middle School began "full time PM" instruction, also known as Phase 2 of the District Reopening Plan. 1/3 of students still remained online, but this second phase called for the merge of the two hybrid groups into one cohort. It also extended the class instruction period (synchronous time) from 40 minutes to one hour for each class, more or less the same as real school. However, there were still only 3 classes per day. In short, this new plan means the hybrid learning group structure was eliminated in favor of longer instruction with more students. The PM synchronous session ran from 11:50 AM - 3:00 PM for all students. Asynchronous still existed in the morning and ran from 8:15 - 10:50 AM, shorter than before. This motion was approved 7 - 0 by the school board.
Elementary students returned to full time in-person instruction at the same time (K-5 students).
2021 - 2022 School Year
Reopening Plan & Enrollment Surge (August 2021)
In the weeks before the 2021 - 2022 school year began, it was announced by the administration that many new students were enrolling into Williamston High School during August. This combined with the return of many students who did not attend WHS the previous year forced the administration to consider adding a third lunch period, in order to avoid overcrowding the lunch rooms. The final decision was made literally the morning of the first day of school. The school decided to implement this third lunch period, known as "C-lunch". Also as a result of the enrollment surge, student schedules were subject to change until the day before school. According to some staff members, the were almost 700 students present at WHS for the 2021 - 2022 school year.
During 2021, there was some talk in the administration about raising the price of school lunch. This did not occur, because the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that it will be renumbering schools for breakfast and lunch costs. As a result, breakfast and lunch has been provided for free at Williamston Community Schools to all students for the entire school year so far.
The school district released their plan of action for the 2021 - 2022 school year on August 5th. The level of COVID-19 cases in the district and community would determine what mitigation measures the district would enforce. The school year started off on the "Negligible / Low" setting, in which masks were recommended on school grounds, but not required. However, masks were required on public transportation in all phases of the district plan, but this is due to a CDC order issued in January 29th of 2021 that requires the wearing of masks on all public transportation, including school buses.
First Semester (August 2021 - January 2022)
The 2021 - 2022 school year began as an entirely normal one, aside from the mask requirement on school buses. However, the Ingham County Health Department released an emergency order on September 2nd. This order requires that all students wear masks in school, despite vaccination status and local school policies. In addition, students are required to isolate if they tested positive with COVID-19 with symptoms. Vaccinated students that test positive without symptoms do not have to quarantine, while un-vaccinated students must quarantine if they test positive. This order went into effect on September 7th, and remains in effect to this day.
From August - October, most of the positive cases in the district were from the elementary schools.
During November, there were a lot of cases in Williamston High School (in addition to the rest of the district). Countless people were called down to the office in the middle of class for close contact warnings and possibly testing. Some students were asked to show proof of vaccination in order to avoid being sent home. There was some speculation that the district would choose to extend thanksgiving break to try and slow the spread of COVID-19 in the school (like the previous year when the hybrid plan was temporarily suspended for elementary students), but this did not occur.
During December, most of the reported positive cases were once again from the elementary schools.
In early January 2022, just after Winter Break, cases spiked at Williamston High School and across the district. Some local school districts either closed or moved online during the week following Winter Break. Williamston Community Schools did not. On January 14th and January 31st, all school buildings were closed because of staffing shortages caused by COVID-19. Despite this development, Dr. Spina reaffirmed in a Superintendent's Blog entry that WCS "remains committed to staying open for in-person learning."
Second Semester (January 2022 - June 2022)
During February, COVID-18 cases decreased significantly across the district. On February 14th, after local news reported that Ingham County planned to drop the mask mandate in schools, the WCS Board of Education repealed the PreK - 6th grade mask mandate policy that was put into place early in the school year. On February 18th, the mask mandate for schools was repealed due to a local decline in COVID-19 cases. As a result, mask wearing became entirely optional in WCS buildings, as outlined by the district's original COVID-19 plan.
In April, after over a month of no cases, a sudden rise of COVID-19 cases at Williamston High School occured.