ELPS Gears Up for Return to In-Person Learning, Discusses Racial Equity Training

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The East Lansing Public Schools Board of Education met on Monday evening, in part to discuss the finishing touches for its plan for in-person learning that will begin Mar. 1 and professional development for district staff that focuses on racial equity and social justice.

The Board unanimously voted to approve the Continuity of Learning Plan that will allow students who desire to return to in-person learning to do so.

The approved plan is almost identical to the one the Board approved in January with a few relatively minor changes. As ELi reported last week, all grades will now begin their orientation weeks on Mar. 1 in light of teacher-vaccination delays caused by the weather. Due to transportation concerns, the daily schedules for the middle school and high school have now been staggered by 15 minutes.

During Board discussion, Trustee Debbie Walton began by saying that, although she had been the most skeptical of the plan last month – she was the only trustee to vote against it – she fully endorsed the plan this time around. She cited communication with district committees, parent councils, and administrators as the reason for changing her opinion.

Photo courtesy of Debbie Walton.

Trustee Debbie Walton.

She prompted Superintendent Dori Leyko to publicly address the issue of physical spacing in classrooms, an issue the two had discussed prior to the meeting. According to Leyko, middle and high school classes will involve four or more feet of distance between students, and all desks will have plastic partitions. Some classes, such as choir, will be held in larger rooms.

Leyko also worked with Whitehills principal Shane Johnson on spacing in elementary classrooms. Upper elementary students will be spaced five-to-six feet apart. Lower elementary classrooms will always be spaced above three feet. Individual desks will replace tables, and some classrooms will be expanded.

Superintendent Dori Leyko

The district has also hired five long-term subs and one permanent teacher to prevent the swelling of class size for remote learning.

During the Superintendent’s update, Leyko told the Board that some high school students will have the opportunity to participate in a weekly voluntary rapid testing program. The district will receive 300 tests for the approximately 600 returning students. It will begin disseminating information and gaining parental consent for students under 18.

Students will test themselves in the program. The district may have the opportunity to expand the number of tests it completes each week.

The district had previously been approved by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to participate in a rapid-testing program for teachers and staff and is  finalizing its work to hire people to oversee the tests for district staff.

Leyko and Trustee Elizabeth Guerrero Lyons encouraged community members affiliated with Michigan State University to participate in the Spartan Spit Kit rapid-testing program. Leyko also reminded families and the community that they can continue to keep schools open by masking, social distancing, hand washing, and staying home when they exhibit symptoms.

During the discussion, Trustee Monica Fink also issued an apology. During the Jan. 25 meeting, she had asked for clarification on some safety protocols at the Feb. 8 meeting. At the Feb. 8 meeting, she did not ask for a follow-up because her concerns had been addressed, but she admitted on Monday night that some families felt let down because they had been anticipating a public discussion on the issues she outlined.

Trustee Monica Fink

Curriculum Director Glenn Mitcham presented on the professional development opportunities that the district has offered teachers.

In 2019, the Board and district administrators set a goal of focusing on social and racial justice. Around the same time, the Marble School Equity Night introduced the district to the Justice Leaders Collaborative from Washtenaw County.

During the 2019-2020 school year, the district offered K-5 teachers training on trauma-informed teaching. Teachers for grades 6-12 focused on using the America to Me documentary series. According to Mitcham, the series seemed applicable because it focused on the experience of Oak Park River Forest district in the suburbs of Chicago. The community was well-educated and well-positioned to understand diversity in Mitcham’s estimate, but the district struggled with addressing issues of diversity and inclusion.

As the 2019-2020 school year continued, a snow day and the pandemic put professional development on hold, but Mitcham said that the killing of George Floyd and the district’s response refocused its efforts on social and racial justice.

Curriculum Director Glenn Mitcham provides an overview of the professional development Terah Chambers has provided district teachers.

This year, teachers for grades K-5 will attend a session on diversity in literature held by Dr. Tanya Wright of MSU. Dr. Terah Chambers, School Board President and professor at the MSU College of Education has hosted a series for teachers for grades 6-12. Topics have included institutional racism and the Black student experience.

According to Mitcham, the district is continuing its dedication to improving its performance on issues of social and racial justice by having six to ten faculty and staff members complete a course created by the Social Justice Collaborative.

The Board also took action on several other items. 

The Board consented to hiring a new teacher for Marble Elementary School and an additional custodian, and approved the purchase of plastic place dividers for lunch tables. The Board also unanimous approved to cast a vote for  Jack Temsey of Potterville Public Schools to serve on the Board of Directors of the Michigan Association of School Boards.

The School Board also unanimously approved a motion to submit a request to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Director of MDHHS to permit school boards to meet in-person in some format. Chambers explained that school boards are currently barred from meeting in-person, but a new policy would give districts freedom to choose their mode of meeting.

Should state guidelines change, the ELPS School Board is considering meeting in-person but accommodating virtual interaction for members of the public.

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