In a three-and-a-half hour long School Board meeting on Monday night, two dozen parents and community members responded to East Lansing Public School’s proposed plan to begin the school year online, with many criticizing what they viewed as a “one size fits all” approach. A number also asked (but did not get answers to) what benchmarks the district will be using to decide when to hold or not hold in-person activities.
Over 200 people tuned in to last night’s virtual meeting, with public comment taking up half the meeting time. Many expressed concern about families trying to cope with merging first-responder jobs, stay-at-home jobs, technological challenges, special needs, and children being expected to learn on systems that don’t work well for their education – not to mention massive ongoing stress.
Jane Turner, a pediatrician and former School Board trustee, encouraged the Board to “think about treating different ages differently.”
“Younger kids are much more at risk if they are not in the classroom and have less risk of being seriously ill from COVID or spreading the virus,” she continued.
Turner suggested that K-6 students could work in pods, sharing germs with only a few classmates and their families. The plans would be less feasible, she said, for older students.
Parents of elementary-school aged children were eager for the Board to take Turner’s recommendation seriously, raising concern over the amount of screen time the proposed program calls for.
One mother, Brittani Hall, has two small children – a young-5 and a first grader. She felt it would be challenging to help both children sit and engage in their classes if both were scheduled for a class at the same time.
Hall also voiced concerns that the prolonged absence from school – already the length of two summers – will have negative mental health effects and make the actual return more difficult.
Jessi Kauppi criticized taking attendance for synchronous meetings, calling it “a measure of my ability to force my kid in front of screen” instead of being a measure of her child’s capabilities or interest. She likewise suggested that report cards might be inappropriate for younger students engaged in online learning.
Ellen Marr seconded these concerns, stating that online education often demanded one-on-one support from a parent. She noted a skills regression in her children. She also explained that despite having exceptional internet service in her home, her family’s internet had crashed when everyone used Zoom at once.
Laura Tortorelli, Ph.D., a parent of an ELPS student and a professor at MSU’s College of Education, bluntly stated “there is no online learning for kindergarten through second grade.” She argued that online learning would have devastating effects on childhood literacy, her area of expertise.
“What happens in these years cannot be replaced,” she told the Board, as she picked up and walked the house with a toddler wanting her attention.
Several parents and special education specialists also raised concerns about children who have a particularly challenging time learning remotely. Many recognized that there is no easy solution to this or the rest of the curricular problems in this extraordinary time.
Not all parents opposed the reopening plan.
Dianna Erickson and Matt Dupuis each found nuances in the plan on closer looks, pointing out that the screen time may be less than it appears.
Kennetha Bigham-Tsai also did not see the plan as a one-size-fits-all, arguing that “Kids lost important experiences, not because East Lansing shut down, but because this pandemic is ravaging our country.”
Michael Adams, a teacher in a neighboring district and father of a kindergartner, applauded online learning since “under a pandemic, face-to-face will not be the same.” He continued, “We would be teaching kids to be afraid of each other” in person. “It won’t be a community classroom. We will be teaching isolation.”
Others weighing in suggested possible solutions.
Cheri Kreft mentioned the possibility of using other school buildings and the Hannah Center to spread smaller children out.
Nicole Biber called on ELPS to be more innovative and to consider outdoor education, citing the benefits of gardening and sustainability for training students for jobs in green industries.
Some simply wanted to know what were the parameters for deciding it was safe to return to in-person instruction.
When public comment ended and Leyko formally introduced the plan – a plan based on feedback surveys and information from working groups – she admitted that the plan did not meet the needs of every family. She said that various stakeholders considered many options, including teaching only in-person, in hybrid styles, and fully online.
In choosing a plan, health and safety, equity and access, and family and teacher preferences were all considered, she told the Board.
Tim Akers, an ELHS teacher and President of the East Lansing Education Association (the teachers’ union), voiced concerns teachers shared with him regarding online learning. However, Akers made clear that he saw this decision as “the best of the bad decisions. If we went face-to-face, it would just be [a question of] ‘when’ not ‘if,’” someone tested positive.
Leyko told the Board that she intended for education to continue online throughout phase four, East Lansing’s current phase, which does permit some in-person instruction. In-person instruction, she said, would not occur until phase five, and that phase may still include some online learning.
However, the continuation of remote instruction is dependent on waivers from the State of Michigan, permitting schools to receive state aid while operating online. If the waiver is not granted, plans for remote instruction may change.
For its part, the Board largely endorsed the plan.
School Board Secretary Chris Martin echoed several parents’ concerns, including that remote learning was going to leave the youngest children behind.
“What can we do to get back safely?” Martin asked. He suggested that the district immediately invest in PPE and other equipment to facilitate the return of the youngest students, whom he sees as the most vulnerable.
He also noted that plans for phase five – the phase in which in person instruction might begin – contains no specific details for safety. Instead, it just repeats generic language provided by the state. He wanted to know what benchmarks are being used for return.
Trustee Hilary Henderson followed Martin, stating it might be worth “getting creative with the younger kids,” but also pointed to sustainability. It would be expensive to return in person to only shut down and re-engage in online learning when cases emerge.
When wrapping up the Board’s discussion, Board President Erin Graham stated the importance of recognizing that East Lansing is a college town with thousands of young adults returning just as ELPS will begin its school year.
Graham referred to one of her students who said that they were “looking forward to getting COVID to just getting it over with.”
The School Board expects to vote on the plan at its August 10 meeting. The approved plan must be submitted to the Ingham Intermediate School District by August 15.
In the meantime, parents may email the Board and superintendent with suggestions and comments. Their email addresses are available here.