Nearly 60 percent of families at East Lansing Public Schools are planning to return to in-person learning in January if “local health and risk data support a transition,” according to a survey sent to parents and guardians.
Compared to a survey from September, the number of families willing to return to in-person increased slightly. Then, 54 percent of families were considering returning.
In November, ELi asked several parents who spoke at public comment over the past few months how they felt about a possible return to school. Not everyone we reached out to responded, and we were limited to reaching out to individuals who had some contact information publicly available.
Some also wrote to us to explain that since the issue is contentious and their previous comments resulted in backlash from friends and acquaintances, they wished not to comment. The comments we did receive, however, show just how complex the decision and the debate is.
Those who do prefer remote learning admit it is challenging to hold a job and help their children with their education. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to meet the needs of each family, all of whom are weighing the needs of their own mental, physical, and economic well-being.
Did the district miss an opportunity?
ELPS students have not engaged in in-person instruction since Gov. Gretchen Whitmer first ordered all schools closed in March to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The state government provided districts with more autonomy in making the decision to offer in-person or remote learning for the 2020-2021 school year.
East Lansing’s School Board ultimately voted to begin the school year online. Only Secretary Chris Martin dissented, stating, “I don’t see a plan for bringing students back, just a plan to make a plan later.”
As per state law, the ELPS School Board has recertified its plans for education learning during the pandemic, voting each time to continue with remote education and pushing a possible reopening until Jan. 19, 2021, at the earliest for all students.
Sarah Reckhow, a mother of two school-aged children and professor at MSU, spoke with ELi not long after the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services announced its epidemic order that suspended all in-person learning at the high school level this November.
The order didn’t change much for many elementary-school-aged children in district schools. They continued to learn remotely, although some in-person opportunities had been made available in October for students in special education and English language learner programs.
Reckhow told ELi that she remains “disappointed and frustrated” that the district didn’t hold in-person instruction for elementary schools. She pointed to the epidemic order that shuttered only high schools since transmission of Covid-19 appeared more likely among older students than younger ones. In contrast, it permitted K-8 education to continue in person if a district had opted for that.
“Never as a district did we do the thing that was necessary – allow younger kids to return. We went forward with something less safe, high school sports,” said Reckhow.
High school sports were allowed to continue through the fall until being suspended. Earlier in the fall, Covid-19 outbreaks in other districts meant canceled games for East Lansing High School.
Reckhow believes Michiganders must now focus on getting the number of Covid-19 cases down, but will send her daughter to Glencairn if local public schools reopen in January. She acknowledged that she has some concerns over safety but believes some risks can be mitigated through measures like distancing and mask-wearing.
Some parents withdrew their kids from ELPS.
Other parents responded to ELPS’s decisions by removing their children from district schools and enrolling them in schools that offered in-person learning.
Victor Chernetsky had called for a plan for returning to in-person learning in September, since he would struggle to afford other educational avenues as a parent who is an international graduate student. But Chernetsky told ELi in November that the “online learning mode was very challenging for our son, who is in the 1st grade,” and his son is now enrolled elsewhere.
As ELi reported in September, Chernetsky was not alone in pursuing in-person education elsewhere. At least three other families had done likewise.
Reckhow told ELi that while she left her daughter — a fourth-grader — in Glencairn, she enrolled her son — a first-grader — in St. Thomas Aquinas School, a Catholic school offering in-person learning.
Reckhow and her family are Jewish, but she believed in-person learning was necessary for her son who could not read independently at the beginning of the school year. After three months of in-person instruction, he is reading on his own
“We definitely would have needed childcare if we kept him home,” said Reckhow. Since her daughter is older, she is better able to navigate online education. Reckhow believes the teachers at Glencairn are doing their best they can “given the limits of online education,” but she finds her son’s lessons are more engaging. While her daughter’s science lessons have been primarily videos and questions, her son has planted seeds and enjoyed outdoor exploration.
Others are grateful for the option of staying home, even if it isn’t easy.
Jill Selke’s son started in young fives this year. She believes that since he had no expectations of what school might look like, he may have fared better with online learning than kids slightly older.
But it’s still been a challenge. Her son expressed significant anxiety and fear of speaking on camera, but things have improved. The mornings are devoted to school and the afternoons offer him free time.
Selke explained that, “He has meltdowns or disagreements almost every day, but we work through them and he’s learning how to manage stress and disappointment and we’ve discovered a few mindfulness exercises that he has started doing without prompting.”
Selke has been impressed with the quality of online learning but notes that it doesn’t offer as much for social and emotional skills as in-person learning.
Online learning also forced Selke into a new schedule. She spends her mornings helping her son with school and then does her own work from home in the afternoon and well into the evening.
Selke isn’t opposed to ELPS reopening, just appreciative of the option to stay home, telling ELi, “I realize I’m in a very privileged situation. We can stay home. We can work from home. Other people have different situations and might need their kids to be back in school more urgently than we do.”
So, why is Selke keeping her child home?
“I have significant concerns with covid transmission if he were to return to in-person before a vaccine is widely available,” she wrote over email. “I have a couple of medical conditions which put me at higher risk, and we have family that is extremely high risk.”
Selke also stated that returning to in-person learning will bring its own stressors, such as needing to spend parts of the school day sanitizing and following other safety measures.
The School Board will vote at its Dec. 14 meeting on whether students can return to in-person learning on Jan. 19, 2021. Previously, kindergarten through fifth grade were going to return on Jan. 4, but Superintendent Dori Leyko and Board pushed the possible start date to Jan. 19 for all in light of recent Covid-19 numbers and concerns that a Jan. 4 start date was too close to possible holiday gatherings.
The Board will consider the percent positivity rate of Covid-19 tests and the number of cases in the area per 100,000. ELPS and other districts across Michigan are also required to consider hospitalization and death rates at the state and local level before reopening.
Even if in-person learning resumes, families will be able to continue with online education for the remainder of the academic year if they wish to do so.
Make sure reporting on your local schools continues in 2021!