ELPS Board Votes Next Week on Keeping Classes Remote Until January

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Gary Caldwell for ELi

Empty bike racks outside MacDonald Middle School.

East Lansing Public Schools Superintendent Dori Leyko and Director of Curriculum Glen Mitcham revealed at Monday’s school board meeting the district’s plan for returning to in-person instruction. 

According to the plan, students would begin returning to physical classrooms on Jan. 4, 2021, but with some important caveats. Through the end of the school year, virtual instruction will remain available to families who prefer that for their children.

A week after Monday’s presentation, on Oct. 26, the Board will vote on the plan.  

What’s the plan?

Both Leyko and Mitcham made clear that the return to in-person learning is dependent on what the Covid-19 situation is in Ingham County — and in East Lansing in particular. 

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. 

Superintendent Dori Leyko and the trustees look at the Ingham County COVID-19 dashboard at the Sept. 14 meeting.

At Monday’s meeting, she pointed to the rising cases in Michigan as a cause for concern, prompting her to recommend against returning to in-person instruction for November. During discussion of the plan, Leyko said she would specify metrics but believed that the Board’s input was also important.

Virtual instruction will remain available to families who prefer it through the end of the school year. For families who opt to return to in-person instruction, the proposed process would begin gradually. Elementary school children would return the week of Jan. 4, and middle and high school students the week of Jan. 19. All students would undergo an orientation upon return to familiarize them with new protocols.

If the plan passes, teachers will teach either fully online or fully in-person. Scheduling classes as some families remain remote and others in-person is difficult, Mitcham said. He said that his review of operational hybrid plans found teachers felt as though they were working two jobs and doing neither well. Moreover, committing teachers to either fully online or fully in-person will more easily accommodate teachers with underlying conditions or medical exemptions that could make working in-person dangerous.

As a result, some students may wind up switching teachers even as the district tries to avoid this as much as possible.

Scheduling for the high school also poses unique difficulties. A teacher may teach one section of an Advanced Placement (AP) course and opt to return while students in the class remain virtual or vice versa. What happens to these students? ELPS is considering collaboration with other nearby districts and Michigan Virtual University.

The district also has plans to hire substitute teachers and guest teachers to make offering both forms of learning possible.

Responses to the Proposed Plan

Before having Mitcham outline the plan, Leyko offered a statement in which she outlined the complexity of the decision-making process and admitted that no plan would address the needs and desires of every family.

“There is no one right way or best way for school,” she said. She also believes that there is “no popular decision.”

Leyko sees 6 groups in the process: parents who want to return, and those who want to remain virtual; teachers and staff who want to return, and those want to remain virtual; and students who want to return, and those who want to remain virtual. All, she said, are driven by concern for the mental and physical health and safety of students. 

Some Board members commented on the plan, but none suggested how they might vote. Board Secretary Chris Martin called for more detail on safety protocols in the building and suggested that parents complete health screenings for their children. Board Vice President Terah Chambers said she needed to think about the plan but found it important that the administration and the local teachers’ union, the East Lansing Education Association (ELEA), both endorsed it.

Superintendent Dori Leyko and Secretary Chris Martin at a Board meeting in January.

ELEA President Tim Akers spoke on behalf of teachers, pointing to a survey that 95-percent of teachers completed. In that survey, 82-percent said they wanted to remain virtual under current conditions and nearly 60-percent expressed discomfort at the thought of returning. Over 80-percent also believe parents might send their children to school sick and expressed doubt over the custodial service keeping the building sanitary.

Akers acknowledged that inequities exist in online learning but stated that inequities had existed during in-person learning as well. He also said that he was disheartened to hear parents say that teachers’ feedback should not be considered in return to school planning.

The parents who spoke during public comment largely endorsed the plan and supported the prior decision to go virtual. Several expressed concern that returning so early in January may be too close to the winter holidays. If families celebrated the New Year in a group setting, they could contract Covid-19 and send their children to school before symptoms appear.

What to expect in the meantime

This week, ELPS began welcoming back some students in its special education program for part-time, in-person instruction. These students meet in groups that range in from two to seven students. The small groups allow for physical distancing and all students are masked unless they have a medically-documented reason to not wear a mask. Similar opportunities for English Language Learners will begin in late October or early November.

ELPS also recently received a shipment of two thousand Chromebooks (relatively inexpensive laptop computers) which are being set up and will be distributed to families shortly. 

The Board also approved the purchase of a dynamic air cleaner for Red Cedar Elementary School. All other school buildings except the old Donley Elementary have similar filtration systems. The district will use small, portable filters for old Donley.

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