EL School Board Addresses Covid Challenges With New President

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Dylan Lees for ELi

Kate Powers replaced Terah Chambers as the President of the ELPS Board of Education. (Photos taken at Aug. 9, 2021, meeting.)

A new President of the East Lansing Public Schools’ Board of Education has been named as the district enters a new year of challenges from the Covid-19 pandemic. Those challenges include having to administer final exams at East Lansing High School amid high rates of absenteeism and introducing mitigation efforts against the more transmissible Omicron variant.

To kick off its first meeting of 2022, the ELPS School Board shifted the role of President from Terah Chambers to Kate Powers. As the two swapped seats, the Board also voted to name Chris Martin as Vice President and Monica Fink as Secretary, while keeping Kath Edsall in her seat as Treasurer. 

Members of the Board expressed their gratitude and respect for Chambers’ work as President during the challenging year that included a return to in-person learning during the pandemic. 

“I have sat in this seat before and it’s not easy in a normal year,” Powers said. “I have large shoes to fill.”

Cases of Covid-19 are up and attendance is down at ELHS as the Omicron variant continues to spread.

At Monday’s meeting, ELHS Student Representative Annie McIlhagga spoke for the student body by reiterating a sentiment expressed in Superintendent Dori Leyko’s email sent to families on Jan. 5: that going online at this time would be a riskier decision than in-person learning due to the detrimental effects seen in students’ mental health when forced to attend school remotely. 

The discussion followed on the heels of an update on Jan. 9 from Superintendent Dori Leyko, in which she stated that district attendance fell below 75 percent on Jan. 6, 7, and 8, largely due to absences at the high school. State law requires that 75 percent or more of students attend class in order for the school day to count for receiving per-pupil funding from the state. The district can either reschedule days that fell below the threshold or accept a reduction in state funding.

At the Board meeting, Leyko said that the district would accept the funding reduction, which she calculated to be roughly $2,000 total as of Monday evening.

McIlhagga did suggest that more efforts could be made to support students who have missed class for a variety of reasons, including quarantining, waiting for PCR test results, and choosing to stay home from fear of catching the virus or for the safety of immunocompromised family members.

McIlhagga noted there has been a lack of consistency in what teachers have done to ensure absent students stay up to date with classwork as finals begin this week. While some teachers have used Google Classrooms, Zoom, and other methods to engage students, others have been less responsive to students’ questions about missed work.

“We don’t want them coming to school sick, so make it easier for them to stay home when sick,” said McIlhagga.

As students head into finals this week, ELHS administrators reassured them that finals will be worth no more than 5% of their total course grade, and students may be able to reschedule their exams with proctors if they miss school.

Covid-19 safety protocols are being reevaluated as this new variant continues to pose a threat to in-person learning. 

The district, according to Leyko, has taken some new steps to improve mitigation, including ordering KN95 and KF94 masks. Other efforts include adding 400 new registrants for weekly PCR testing, applying to receive more home-testing kits for families, and a booster clinic to vaccinate those 12-years-old-and-up on Jan. 27, from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.

The announcement about masks came after a teacher from MacDonald Middle School spoke to the Board about outdated Covid mitigation strategies in place throughout the district. As of Monday, MMS had 19 active Covid cases and ELHS 15, according to the district’s Covid dashboard

Citing new research she found, the teacher noted that despite being worn by the majority of persons in district buildings, cloth and disposable surgical masks are only 50% effective in preventing Omicron transmission. The CDC recommends layering a cloth mask and a disposable mask together or upgrading to an N95 or KN95 mask to increase efficacy against spreading the virus.  

She also said that plastic barriers like the ones inside cafeterias have been found to be ineffective at preventing virus spread even before Omicron made its way to Michigan. 

“Mitigation efforts are not working as intended… the disease has continued to change. Science evolved, but strategies have not,” she said as she listed several strategies, such as social distancing, one-way traffic in hallways, and restricted locker use, that are no longer adhered to at MMS. 

The MMS teacher suggested transitioning students to N95 or KN95 masks and potentially shortening the school day in order to safely feed children outside of a cafeteria setting while the weather does not permit outdoor dining. 

The Board addressed tennis courts plans, new policies, a teacher recognized for going above and beyond, and a new food truck. 

The Board approved the purchase of a new food service truck since the current two, which are used to move food prepared at the high school to other district buildings, have fully depreciated, according to Finance Director Rich Pugh. The district will likely receive the truck in about six months, and one of the depreciated trucks will be put to work for the district for miscellaneous tasks. 

In line with state policy guidelines, the Board held a public hearing and then adopted the Anti-Bullying Policy section of the new handbook.

After several parents advocated for additional upgrades to the tennis court renovations slated to be completed for the 2022-2023 school year at the Dec. 13 School Board meeting, Treasurer Kath Edsall said that due to easements on the property, ten courts are not possible, but post-tension concrete, another demand previously advocated for, was included in the original plan that the district intends to implement. 

At Monday’s meeting, the Board also recognized ELPS Speech Language Pathologist Dr. Sherry Martin of Robert L. Green Elementary for winning the Excellence in Education award from the Michigan Lottery. Along with a $1,500 cash prize, Martin was awarded a $500 grant to use in her classroom or within ELPS district. You can watch a segment about her work and award on Fox 47 News here

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