Chambers Elected School Board President, as Return-to-School Plans Still in Flux

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Raymond Holt for ELi

ELPS Board Vice President and MSU Professor Terah Chambers at the Jan. 27, 2020, meeting of the school board.

The East Lansing Public Schools’ Board of Education held its first meeting of 2021 to welcome new members and elect new officers. The discussion at Monday’s meeting indicated that the district’s return-to-school plans are still in flux and that there is frustration about the grading policies currently implemented for high schoolers.

New Members Join, Officers Elected

Monica Fink, Elizabeth Guerrero Lyons, and Debbie Walton, who won their seats in the November 2020 election, were sworn in, promising to “faithfully discharge the duties” of their offices.

During the election of Board officers, Kate Powers moved to make Terah Chambers President, herself Vice President, Kath Edsall Treasurer, and Chris Martin Secretary. The Board unanimously approved this slate of officers.

Edsall explained that the Board usually opts to give officer positions to senior members so that newly-elected trustees can learn the ropes without having to worry about other responsibilities.

According to Edsall, this is the most diverse school board to date, with three women of color – Chambers, Fink, and Lyons. Chambers will be the first Black woman to serve as President. Martin also said that Chambers was, in his estimation, “the most qualified person” to hold the position, referring to Chambers’ work as a professor in Michigan State University’s College of Education.

Return-to-School Plans Change Again

Last week, Gov. Whitmer announced that she would like to see all schools begin to offer some form of in-person learning by Mar. 1, 2021, and that teachers would now be eligible to receive covid-19 vaccines since the state had moved to begin vaccinating Phase 1B.

ELPS had approved a plan for returning to school at its Dec. 14 meeting. Students in pre-K through second grade were to return starting on Feb. 1, and grades 3 through 5 following on Feb. 15. A Mar. 1 return date was proposed for middle and high school students.

At Monday’s meeting, however, Superintendent Dori Leyko said it would be more likely that children in grades pre-K through 5 would return on Feb. 16 and middle and high school students the following week. According to Leyko, this would allow teachers who would like to get vaccinated the opportunity to receive their first and second doses and build up antibodies.

But, some had questions about this schedule. The plan proposed is dependent on teachers receiving the Pfizer vaccine, which allows the recipient to receive a second dose within three weeks. Assuming that vaccine is the one used for ELPS teachers, Leyko cited the federal Food and Drug Administration as saying 95% immunity is reached within 7 days of the second dose.

Ingham County’s Health Department has overwhelming distributed the Pfizer vaccine, but as Eric Berling pointed out during public comment, the department has announced that demand for the vaccine far exceeds the doses available.

Leyko said that families should expect to see surveys on return to in-person learning soon and a full plan will be presented to the Board at the next meeting.

Students and Parents Voice Concerns, Frustrations

Three East Lansing High School juniors – Annie McIllhagga, Marie Adele Grosso, and Gloria Zink – called in to voice their concern about the grading policy.

When ELPS went remote in March 2020, the district did away with letter grades, citing equity issues during the pandemic. The Board received some pushback from parents who argued that their high schoolers had worked hard to improve their GPAs for college admissions and scholarships.

Now, this school year, students are receiving grades, but the three young women who spoke to the Board this week felt it was too much during the pandemic, as students grapple with anxiety, depression, and isolation. Grosso said she had wanted letter grades to come back but “was wrong.”

Zink told the Board that GPAs were not reflecting the significant efforts that students put into their work. She argued that while students had been asked to give their teachers leeway during online learning, students were not always given the same in return. She advocated for ELPS adopting a system similar to MSU, where students can apply to receive a pass/fail grade or opt to keep the letter grade assigned.

The young women, while eager to return to school, admitted that they had concerns. McIllhagga called for the district to ask students if they had traveled before allowing them entrance to school.

Kim Henderson and Alissa McCoy – both mothers to seniors – called in asking for the Board to release tentative dates for prom, graduation, and the last day of school. In particular, McCoy argued that having these markers in mind was important for the mental health of seniors who had already missed out on many milestones this year.

The Board will meet again on Jan. 25 to discuss plans for a proposed February return. You can find the schedule for 2021 here.

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