As Pandemic Drags Out, ELPS Grapples with Balancing Student Emotional Wellbeing and Physical Health

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Families are weighing physical health and emotional wellbeing during the current pandemic wave.

East Lansing Public Schools will remain in-person “as long as conditions are safe to do so,” Superintendent Dori Leyko informed families via email on Jan. 5, despite Michigan averaging 13,673 cases of Covid-19 a day and Ingham County 328 cases a day over the last seven days, according to Bridge Michigan.

In November 2020, high caseloads of Covid-19 generated uncertainty on what a return to in-person learning would look like in East Lansing’s schools, but Leyko cited “the negative effects 18 months of remote learning had on our students” when explaining the district’s decision to remain in-person as long as it possibly can.

Leyko’s letter to families came after ELi learned of high rates of absenteeism at East Lansing High School due both to incidents of Covid-19 and student concerns about catching Covid-19. One East Lansing high schooler told ELi that students who had not feared catching Covid-19 in school are worried about it for the first time, opting to stay home or consider staying home in the near future.

For the district, it is now a balancing act between protecting students from the current wave of infections brought on by the Omicron variant and protecting them from the detrimental effects of prolonged social isolation, just as the district has begun to see improvements in student conduct – an issue of concern during the fall months.

Documents that ELi obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) from ELPS and Ingham County 911 show that physical altercations were a problem from the start of this school year.

Fights at MacDonald Middle School (MMS) and East Lansing High School (ELHS) occurred as early as the first week of the academic year. Speaking to ELi in October, two ELHS teachers stated that the social isolation brought on by remote learning had a detrimental effect on students’ social and emotional development, something that Leyko agreed with when speaking on ELi’s East Lansing Insider podcast.  

On Aug. 24, at ELHS, one student slapped another in retaliation for the student stepping on his shoe. A fight among three students followed, and all were ultimately suspended for one day and barred for participating in one football game. (They were football players.)

During the same week, a middle school student received a one-day suspension for grabbing another student by the hair and repeatedly punching her classmate in the face following on the heels of the two students verbally arguing in the days preceding the altercation.

Large gatherings like football games also became locations of fights. On Sept. 3, an ELHS associate principal called 911 for support when students from another district began physically fighting in the parking lot of the high school, and one was believed to have pepper spray. Two weeks later, a fight occurred at football game, and a student involved was later found to have been drinking at the game, resulting in a one-day suspension.

Gary Caldwell for ELi

Photo of the “We Are the Trojans” sign at the East Lansing High School Stadium, taken in April 2021 by Gary Caldwell for ELi. In the foreground are spring blossoms.

In several incidents, teachers were injured, including one that ELi reported in October. In another case, two MMS students began to fight in gym class. After the fight was broken up, one of the students involved struck a teacher in the abdomen and received a one-day suspension.

In other cases, the use of racial slurs informed the lead up to physical altercations. At MMS, a student hit and chased down another student because the classmate had used the N-word and touched a female student.

Two days later, one student called his classmate, who is of Middle Eastern descent, a “terrorist,” and the classmate responded by calling the first student a “crackhead.” After a back and forth, the first student who initiated the incident tackled his classmate, who kicked back. The first student punched the second.

While student conduct has been an issue of concern, School Board President Terah Chambers expressed in November that how the issue was being discussed was also a problem.

“I am deeply uncomfortable with some of the framing around the conversation of violence,” Chambers said at the Nov. 8 School Board meeting.

“I’m going to get a little emotional here because sometimes me being a mom and a Black mom comes out in ways that are hard, but the ways people have spoken about our Schools of Choice kids in this conversation, the way that people have talked about, you know, ‘those kids’ is really hard to hear sometimes,” she said, using scare quotes when saying “those kids.”

Dylan Lees for ELi

President Terah Chambers speaks at the Aug. 9, 2021 School Board meeting.

As several recent ELHS alums have told ELi, white students tend to assume that most if not all Black students who attend ELPS are Schools of Choice students, and the term “Schools of Choice” is often used as a stand-in when making exclusionary comments about Black students.

While Chambers’ comments suggested that some blamed Schools of Choice students for being violent, one parent of a Schools of Choice student at MMS called 911 after their child seemed to be the victim in an altercation.

Some parents and teachers argued that the district’s decision following the murder of George Floyd to end the presence of East Lansing Police resource officers in district schools was in part responsible for the perceived uptick in student misconduct. Others critiqued the district’s preference for restorative justice over more punitive measures.

In October, two teachers told ELi that while they appreciate why the district made those decisions, administrators needed to find replacements for these officers, particularly adults who could help monitor the halls.

The district has since hired student support monitors, who have been trained by the district to monitor the hallways, assist with attendance intervention, and advocate for students as they reacclimated to in-person learning.

When asked on Wednesday if student behavior had improved, one ELHS teacher said, “I think so, largely because the administration responded by putting more adults on the floor. We hired several people to be in the hallways.”

“I see them working when kids gather. They’re really skilled at talking and figuring out what’s going on,” the ELHS teacher said of the new student support monitors. “There’s no question it’s helped.”

But now, students and their parents are weighing the benefits of in-person learning against the threat of Omicron.

Of the 1,223 students enrolled at ELHS, 395 were officially absent on Monday and 424 on Tuesday, according to Leyko. Two teachers suggest that the numbers were actually higher at certain points, after parents removed their students from class later in the day.

The high number of absences are not the result of rampant Covid cases but seem to be the result of fear of contracting Covid.

The district provided families with at-home Covid-19 tests, which it recommended that families use before sending kids to school. According to a letter sent by Leyko to parents, the at-home tests prevented 47 Covid-positive students from attending school, but 17 still showed up with Covid this week, as shown on the district’s dashboard.

An ELHS teacher told ELi that as word got out about the Covid-positive students inside and outside of school, parents began to pull their children out of school and elect not to send them later in the week. An ELHS student similarly said that their classmates are debating whether it is safe to attend school.

But in her letter to families, Leyko said these students, even those who attended class and later tested positive, most likely contracted the virus outside of school and that there is no evidence that ELHS is functioning as a point of spread.

Dylan Lees for ELi

Superintendent Dori Leyko at the Aug. 9, 2021, School Board meeting

Speaking to ELi, the teacher said they “totally support the effort to stay open” and called the district’s mitigation efforts some of the best in the area. Going online when it isn’t necessary would be detrimental to students’ social development, the teacher said.

According to Leyko, the district has held multiple vaccination clinics, has a mask mandate, offers weekly PCR testing, sent home rapid antigen tests, purchased air purifiers, added plastic barriers to the cafeterias, provides outdoor eating options when weather permits, and offers a test-to-stay option for students exposed to Covid-19 while in school.

More recently, the district ordered KN95 masks that are now available in building offices, started limiting spectators at events, and began moving non-essential events to virtual formats.

But according to an ELHS teacher, not everyone sees these efforts as enough, and some would prefer to return to online learning.

As for students, one ELHS student told ELi that the mitigation efforts in the district are good but also pointed out a few issues, including teachers forgetting to turn on air purifiers and some students improperly wearing masks. They also said that some efforts, such as plastic dividers at lunch tables, didn’t seem particularly useful.

For now, the district will stay in-person but will continue to monitor cases and absenteeism and communicate with public health experts, according to Leyko’s letter to families.

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