East Lansing School Board Certifies Return to In-Person Learning in 6 to 1 Vote

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Students at East Lansing High School sanitize their hands before in-person learning was suspended in March.

In a meeting than ran nearly five-and-a-half hours on Monday evening, the East Lansing Public Schools Board of Education in a 6 to 1 vote certified a new plan that would permit a return to in-person learning. The plan voted through last night (Jan. 25) includes several significant changes to the plan that was certified last month.

According to data collected by the district and presented in the plan, about 50 percent of students will return to in-person learning.

The new plan marks an about-face from three of the cornerstones of the previous plan: a phased return to in-person learning; teacher choice on a possible return; and limited class sizes.

Under the newly-approved plan, elementary school children will return to school on Feb. 22, while the previous plan called for a Feb. 1 start for pre-K through second grade and Feb. 15 for grades three through five.

Like the old plan, the new one sets a start date of Mar. 1 for middle and high school students.

The new plan requires all middle and high school teachers to return to the buildings where they will simultaneously teach students who return to in-person learning and those who remain online. Online students will join their in-person classmates via Zoom or Google classrooms. At the elementary level, by contrast, teachers will teach classes that are either fully online or fully in-person.

The previous plan had capped class size at 16 students and limited the number of available in-person seats based on the number of teachers who expressed an interest in returning. Now, the number of students who would like to return will decide the number of teachers who need to return. Classes will be capped at the levels permitted under the East Lansing Education Association’s (ELEA/teachers’ union) existing contract.

In December, ELPS Superintendent Dori Leyko supported teacher choice, expressing concern that if teachers were forced into returning, they could wind up taking leaves of absence, retiring, or resigning, which would leave the district worse off.

Last night, Leyko cited the availability of vaccines for teachers, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s call for schools to offer some in-person learning by Mar. 1, and the improving public health data as reasons for the change of course.

Superintendent Dori Leyko at the June 22, 2020 virtual meeting.

What would school days look like for students in the district?

According to the approved plan, which can still be amended again, elementary school students will have a school day spanning from 8:45 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday regardless of mode of instruction. Those attending in-person will eat lunch at school while sitting only with classmates and maintaining 6 feet of distance. According to the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) list compiled by Leyko, some outdoor time and recess is anticipated for these students.

Online elementary students may lose their special-area instruction, much to the concern of parents who have elected to keep their children learning online.

At the middle and high school level, under the new plan, all students will meet remotely on Mondays. Tuesdays through Fridays, students will attend three classes of 75 minutes each. This schedule has been designed in an effort to minimize contact with other students.

The proposed schedules presented at the Board meeting.

Students learning in-person and those learning online will meet together at the same time. According to ELPS Technology Director Christian Palasty, classrooms are equipped with cameras and microphones so that students participating in both modes will be able to see and hear their teachers. Teachers will use Zoom, Google Classrooms, or some combination of both to engage the online learners.

Leyko explained in her FAQ that having classrooms be fully online or fully in-person at the middle school and high school was untenable, because the master schedule was too complex and some courses would inevitably have been canceled if hybrid classrooms were not used.

ELPS Director of Special Education Nick Hamilton will be holding a town hall this Thursday (Jan. 28) evening to provide more details on what a return will mean for students receiving special education.

The district also outlined its “Safety Lasagna” plan for mitigating the risk of Covid-19 for in-person learning.

The first layer of protection is aimed at preventing individuals with active Covid-19 cases from entering school buildings. This part of the program includes student and staff health screenings, restricting parents and guests from entering the building, district participation in antigen testing, and encouraging staff to get vaccinations.

ELPS staff will not be required to receive a vaccine to return to in-person learning, but according to Leyko, many teachers received their first dose last week or will receive it this week. Leyko has also expressed interest to the state in participating in an antigen-testing program for students, but it is currently unclear if this will happen.

The second layer of protection involves preventing cases from spreading should someone infected with Covid-19 enter the building. This part of the program calls for mask-wearing, maintaining physical distancing, frequent handwashing and sanitizing, cleaning high-touch surfaces, and improving air quality with purifiers and open windows (when weather permits).

ELPS-branded hand sanitizer pumps are available in school buildings.

The third and final layer of protection is aimed at stopping the spread of Covid-19 before an outbreak forms, by cohorting students “to the extent possible” and limiting adult access to the buildings.

Some have expressed frustration with the new plan, while others celebrated the district’s plan for giving families a choice.

ELi first became aware of frustrations over the emerging new plan on Jan. 16, when ELPS parent Ahnalee Brincks reached out to say parents had been sent a form to register their children for in-person or online learning on Friday, Jan. 15, and were instructed to make a decision by 4 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 19, despite schools being closed for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on Jan. 18.

In communications to ELi and on social media, Brincks expressed disappointment with the poor communication and lack of transparency from Board members and the Superintendent. After sending emails to all of them, Brincks told ELi that she only received responses from Board President Terah Chambers and Trustee Debbie Walton, the latter offering to meet by phone.

Brincks forwarded Leyko’s FAQ to ELi when it became available and expressed her appreciation that Leyko had taken this step.

But some frustration from other families and from teachers were expressed at last night’s meeting.

The Vice President and the Secretary for ELEA, the teachers’ union, spoke at the meeting. ELEA Vice President Norm Scott said he could neither give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on the plan, saying the plan was full of “hope” and “pitfalls.”

ELEA Secretary Erin Hansen shared the results of a survey sent to the union’s membership which suggested only 40 percent of teachers would feel safe returning after receiving a second dose of a Covid-19 vaccine. Another 40 percent said they would return but not feel safe. Others were considering requesting unpaid leave. Ninety-three percent of faculty expressed worries about students not properly wearing masks, class size, and sanitation.

For parents speaking last night, concerns centered around the adoption of a hybrid model at the middle and high school levels and the possibility of online elementary level students losing access to special area courses.

Other parents questioned why the district, which had for so long championed a gradual, phased return, was now apparently rushing to return. Some in this camp expressed frustration that public health measures seemed to be playing a less significant role in the decision and cautioned that the decision to return would have ramifications for the entire community, referring to the possibility of increased community spread.

But other parents praised the plan for allowing families to choose the mode that best meets their needs.

The Board called the plan “not perfect,” but most endorsed it.

Newly-seated Trustee Debbie Walton was the only trustee to vote against the plan. In prepared remarks, she stated that the plan for elementary students seemed “solid” but argued that the lack of cohorting among middle and high school students would lead to quarantining many students once someone attends school with Covid-19.

Walton also expressed disappointment in the hybrid model, believing it would dilute quality and reverse a promise made to teachers.

Photo courtesy of Debbie Walton.

Trustee Debbie Walton.

Other trustees noted that parents had expressed valid concerns that should be considered moving forward.

In prepared comments, newly-seated Trustee Monica Fink, who approved the plan, called on Leyko and the administration to come to the Feb. 8 meeting with more details on safety protocols and to be prepared to explain how public health metrics may be better considered.

The majority consensus was that not certifying the plan would delay progress toward in-person learning, something that many families have said they desperately need.

ELi will bring you updates as more details become available.

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