ELPS Board Approves Plan, Students Could Return In-Person in January

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Gary Caldwell for ELi

East Lansing's MacDonald Middle School sits empty, but students may begin returning to in-person learning as soon as Jan. 4.

The East Lansing Public Schools Board of Education unanimously approved its latest Continuity of Learning Plan, which includes provisions for students returning to in-person learning in January with a major caveat: the superintendent’s and board’s reading of public health metrics.

According to the plan, which was discussed last week, students from preschool through 5th grade will hold orientation for in-person learning the week of Jan. 4, 2021, and middle and high school students the week of Jan. 18. Families may opt to continue with virtual learning through the end of the school year.

Although the approved plan includes target start dates, the School Board still needs to vote to recertify the plan in November and December in accordance with state law. And the Board cautioned that undesirable trends regarding Covid-19 — based on various public health metrics — may mean that the target start date may be moved. 

Neither the Board nor Superintendent Dori Leyko specified what metrics or thresholds would allow for a return to in-person learning. However, at the Sept. 14, meeting, Leyko outlined the metrics she finds important and said she uses MSU’s case tracker, the MI Safe Start dashboard, and the Ingham County COVID-19 dashboard to understand what is going on. 

Trustee Kath Edsall stated that she is “conservative about putting other people’s lives at risk” when explaining how she approached the vote in light of rising Covid-19 cases. “It’s not my right to say you have to risk your life or your health,” she said.

The number of Covid-19 cases in Ingham County declined in October after reaching record highs when MSU students returned to East Lansing. But the Board made clear that numbers in Michigan and across the United States have recently risen and referenced public health experts’ expectations that numbers might get worse still in the colder months.

Board President Erin Graham stated that yesterday the seven-day rolling average for Covid-19 case counts was 1,876 in Michigan — the highest it has ever been. She called for the Board to ensure proper “infrastructure” was in place for a return to school and stated that the district could not promise no Covid-19 cases or outbreaks even with proper safety precautions in place. She suggested that local schools could potentially reopen and close several times during the course of the pandemic.

During public comment, Sarah Reckhow commended elementary school teachers for their “excellent work” but voiced frustration with the “lack of leadership” from the Board. She requested going forward that the Board did not “sideline” families who wanted something other than remote learning. She also wanted to see concrete plans for safety, scheduling and staffing in advance of the possible January return.

During Board discussion, Vice President Terah Chambers responded to Reckhow’s comments regarding leadership, saying that people who called for stronger leadership often wanted to see their own understanding of good leadership executed. Chambers explained that she viewed leadership as the role of the district superintendent. As elected officials, the Board’s role is to help the community move toward goals by asking questions and considering the data, Chambers said.

Secretary Chris Martin requested that Leyko provide updates on public health data and the safety protocols ELPS undertakes as it returns to in-person learning, so the Board could best guide the district. According to Leyko, school administrators will begin taking action as soon as this week to ensure a safe return to in-person learning.

In the meantime, some students in the ELPS special education program have returned for part-time, in-person instruction in small groups. English language learners will be given the same opportunity beginning the week of Nov. 2, 2020.

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