As ELPS Approaches a Return to School, What Are People Thinking About It?

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Gary Caldwell for ELi

ELPS students attending in-person will be required to wear masks and follow other safety protocols.

After nearly an entire year away from in-person learning because of Covid-19, some East Lansing Public Schools students will soon return to in-person learning on Monday, March 1. But the plan – unveiled in January – has led to considerable debate within the community.

ELi has learned that litigation was threatened following the Board’s approval in December of a plan that would prioritize a return for the most vulnerable students.

The plan approved in a 5-2 vote by the School Board in December rested on two ideals: prioritizing the most vulnerable students and honoring teachers’ willingness to return to in-person learning. It called for a phasing-in of students over a six-week period and limited in-person class size to 16 students.

Superintendent Dori Leyko, Curriculum Director Glenn Mitcham, and the Board trustees discuss the plan at the December 14, 2020 meeting.

When introducing the new plan in January, Superintendent Leyko cited as reasons for the change of course: the availability of vaccines for teachers; Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s call for schools to offer some in-person learning by Mar. 1; and signs of the situation improving based on the public health data available.

In a written response to ELi about the upcoming return to in-person learning for some, Treasurer Kath Edsall pointed to a factor Leyko didn’t mention publicly that may have also influenced the change. Wrote Edsall, “Prior to the vaccination, when we suggested limiting face to face to those most in need, there was push back and threats of litigation.”

The current plan requires all middle and high school teachers to return to in-person learning, where they will simultaneously teach students who are attending in-person and those who are attending virtually. Some elementary teachers will remain fully virtual, but the number of teachers returning to in-person learning is now being determined by the number of students who would like to return to the buildings.

The cap on in-person class size has been removed, and all students will return on Mar. 1. (The plan initially called for elementary students returning on Feb. 22, but the date was moved to Mar. 1 after some teachers had their appointments for second doses rescheduled due to inclement weather.)

Some wish the School Board had stayed with the plan to prioritize the most vulnerable students.

Edsall told ELi that she favored the premise of the earlier plan, writing, “If it were up to me, [return] would be limited to only those students truly at risk: children without family support, poor access to technology and  children with disabilities and/or English language learners whose families wish for them to return.”

Kath Edsall at the Dept. 7, 2019 School Board meeting.

Similarly, newly-elected Board trustee Monica Fink told ELi that, “if I had my way, we would all stay remote and focus on supporting each other and mental health services to help ease what can only be described as a tough year.” She voted in favor of the return plan because “we have enough of our families and staff that want to return to in person learning,” but she called for a better articulation of what safety protocols entail.

One parent, Ahnalee Brincks, a biostatistician at MSU, has voiced concerns publicly that a return to in-person learning not well managed will lead to community spread. In written comments sent to ELi, Brincks said she would like to see the Superintendent present a plan “to prioritize high-need families and kids.”

Similarly, Jill Selke, a parent to an elementary school child, told ELi, “A safe return would be measured, slow, and incremental.” She added that, “there are other kids and other families who need the in-person environment more than we do, so we can hold out a bit longer.”

The School Board was never clear on what constituted “vulnerability” at a time when many students are feeling the effects of social isolation.

At the December 14 meeting of the School Board, Trustees Kate Powers, Nichole Martin, and Hilary Henderson all called for mental health to be taken into consideration as a serious need. Powers and Henderson voted against the plan, although they did not explain why.

Kate Powers, the Vice President of the ELPS School Board as of January 2021, voted against the plan in December 2020.

Although the District has taken steps to address mental health during the pandemic by introducing mood meters for mental health check-ins and developing a website on mental health to be launched in March, it was never made clear whether students struggling due to isolation would be prioritized for returning.

Amalia Medina, an ELHS student and reporter for ELi, cited the detrimental effects of social isolation as a motivating factor for returning to in-person learning. Wrote Medina, “Initially when I found out we were actually going back I was excited, but the more I thought about it, the less I was open to the idea.”

She cited concerns over the safety of her family, but her mother encouraged her to return because she saw the effect isolation was taking on Medina’s mental health.

Some families feel communication and transparency could be managed better.

Both Brincks and Selke will be keeping their children in virtual learning, citing the slow trickle of information on public health protocols. Selke cited concerns “about the lack of concrete information that has come out about what in-person learning would look like.” 

Brincks wrote to ELi that her “greatest concern is for the lack of clear, concise information provided to families about safety measures,” pointing to concerns over HVAC systems, spacing of students, and the lack of routine testing.

Gary Caldwell for ELi

Marble Elementary School is currently being rebuilt. Marble students will use the old Donley school building this school year.

Brincks’ children attend Marble, which this school year will be holding classes at the old Donley building while the new Marble school is constructed. Old Donley does not have updated ventilation systems like many of the newer buildings. While air purifiers have been purchased, Brincks has not received a direct answer from Marble’s principal about whether these purifiers meet current standards.

The issues of spacing and testing were addressed at the Feb. 22 meeting, coincidentally the day elementary school students were to return if vaccine distribution had not been disrupted by weather.

Some parents, such as Sarah Reckhow, believe communication from Leyko and others has improved as the day for returning to in-person learning has drawn closer. As a parent of children at Glencairn, she was pleased when teachers and administrators worked to create a seven-minute video to demonstrate safety protocols for families before they returned.

The School Board generally feels confident in its safety protocols, and trustees believe questions have been answered.

Trustee Debbie Walton, the only trustee to vote against the plan in January, told ELi that she endorsed the comments Chambers provided to ELi. At the Feb. 22 meeting, Walton stated she felt that safety concerns had been taken seriously and voted in favor of the plan at that meeting.

Fink, who voiced concerns about the January plan, apologized at the Feb. 22 meeting for not asking publicly at the Feb. 8 meeting for her concerns to be addressed, acknowledging that some parents felt let down.

Trustee Debbie Walton (above left) and Trustee Monica Fink (above right).

When asked to respond to comments about a lack of transparency and communication, School Board members pointed to Leyko’s engaging multiple stakeholders through focus groups; sending updates to families; holding meetings with administrators, faculty, and staff; developing a frequently asked questions (FAQ) Google Doc for families that is updated in real time; and monitoring social media for concerns.

Edsall wrote, “We are in the middle of a pandemic and there are unknowns.” She explained that not every question can be answered immediately. Similarly, Martin lauded Leyko for being adaptable and said the District would amend protocols as more information becomes available.

Leyko told ELi that she understands that families are craving information like never before. She said that the volume of emails and her meeting schedule sometimes mean response time is slower than people would like, but, “We welcome additional ideas for consideration.”

Ultimately, the individual decision to return or remain online depends on multiple factors.

Reckhow tells ELi that her daughter will be returning to Glencairn for in-person learning. For Reckhow, this is the one pandemic risk her family is willing to take. They do not eat out. Her children socialize by playing outside with masks on. In-person education, to her, has the greatest benefit of any risk.

By contrast, Adan Tomas Quan, another ELHS student and ELi reporter, will be remaining online due to concerns about his safety and that of his family, whom he considers to be at higher risk.

The District Parent Council (DPC) does not endorse one mode of education over another but encourages families of children returning to have conversations about masking and other public health protocols. Lisa Rutkowski, Co-President of the Council, told ELi that the DPC released its statement because it believes the district is not alone in keeping everyone safe.

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