School Board Majority Approves Some In-Person Learning This Winter; Teachers’ Union President Resigns Following Controversy

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Students inside the new Donley Elementary School as shown in a May 21, 2020.

The East Lansing Public Schools Board of Education voted 5-2 on Monday evening in favor of a Continuity of Learning Plan that would gradually phase students into in-person learning from late January through March. 

The move signaled the beginning of the planning process for parents, students, and teachers, just as the Board wished its three outgoing members farewell, and Tim Akers, President of the East Lansing Education Association (ELEA, the teachers’ union), resigned following a controversial Facebook post.

Students will begin to return to in-person learning over the winter, but it is unclear how many students.

Students who are part of the special education program and English language learners can begin returning to classrooms part-time on Jan. 19, 2021. Students in pre-K through second grade can return starting on Feb. 1, and grades three through five will follow on Feb. 15.

Superintendent Dori Leyko, Curriculum Director Glenn Mitcham, and the Board trustees discuss the plan.

According to Superintendent Dori Leyko, under state guidelines, elementary school-aged children must be prioritized when returning to in-person learning. She also explained that it is much easier to keep younger students in contained cohorts since they are less likely to move between classrooms and come into contact with students from other classrooms. This also makes contact-tracing easier.

Middle and high school students are projected to start returning on Mar. 1, and the plan calls for a reevaluation of conditions come Spring Break.

But the plan does not require teachers to return unless they feel comfortable doing so. This, combined with the policy of limiting in-person classes to just 16 students, may limit how many students can really return. Leyko expressed concern that if teachers were forced into returning, they could wind up  taking leaves of absence, retiring, or resigning, which would leave the district worse off.

Superintendent Dori Leyko introduced two pillars of the plan.

Teachers will be provided information about the plan by Friday and then will have the winter break period to decide if they wish to teach in-person or online. Parents will then complete an application for students to return between Jan. 7 and 11. Parents will retain the option of sticking with virtual learning through the end of the school year.

The plan will “prioritize classroom slots by student need,” and the district “reserve[s] the right to keep this process confidential and internal to protect the privacy of those who will be offered in-person slots.”

Neither Leyko nor Curriculum Director Glenn Mitcham articulated a clear hierarchy of perceived need, citing these privacy concerns, but Trustees Kate Powers, Nichole Martin, and Hilary Henderson all called for mental health to be taken into consideration as a serious need.

East Lansing Public Schools Trustee Kate Powers at the Finance Committee meeting of April 29, 2020.

Powers asked what this system would mean if a grade had no teachers who wanted to return to in-person learning. Leyko said that might mean no students from that grade could return.

The district administration is taking some steps to try to make sure that doesn’t happen. It might consider shifting some teachers’ grade assignments in rare circumstances, and it will permit students to attend elementary schools not in their neighborhoods.

Students who return will attend school five days a week, and the school day is tentatively set to run from 8:45 a.m. to 2 p.m. Students will have to wear masks (except when eating), engage in frequent handwashing, and maintain physical distance as much as possible.

The district will try to minimize reassigning students to new teachers, but in some cases. it will be inevitable. If a student chooses to remain online but their teacher opts for in-person instruction, the student will be assigned a new teacher.

Leyko said that the plan was based on nine months of community feedback. Trustees Kate Powers and Hillary Henderson voted against it.

When introducing the approved plan, Superintendent Dori Leyko stated that it marked a shift for the District, which had prioritized the needs of families, students, and teachers who preferred to engage in online learning. Now, nine months into the pandemic, Leyko said enough is known about the virus to allow for a safer return to in-person learning.

Although the Covid-19 metrics in Michigan and in Ingham County suggest community spread of the virus is pervasive, Leyko remained optimistic that the situation is slowly improving. However, she did not provide hard guidelines for what metrics need to look like for a return.

Leyko indicated that she is hesitant to pinpoint specific benchmarks since the science is evolving but said the district would continue to look at percent positivity of Covid-19 tests and counts of cases per million.

Raymond Holt for ELi

ELPS Superintendent Dori Leyko at the Sept. 9, 2019, School Board meeting.

She also noted that vaccination efforts are underway, which could make it safer for some teachers in the near future. She also expressed concern that students will soon have engaged in remote learning for almost an entire year. 

Trustees Powers and Henderson voted against the plan, but neither explicitly stated why. 

During discussion on the Continuity of Learning Plan, Henderson said that “a lot of mental health issues” among students were “super concerning” and argued that the district had not clearly defined specific metrics for when a return to in-person learning would be considered safe.

Powers also expressed concern over mental health challenges that students are facing and said that the new timeline seemed much longer than the one previously supported by the Board, in which students at all grade levels would have been able to return on Jan. 19.

The district will now begin working with teachers on planning a return just as Tim Akers, the ELEA union president, resigns.

The district will survey teachers on whether they are interested in teaching in-person. Those who do will receive a special stipend in acknowledgement that teaching in-person incurs extra risks. Teachers will also receive a small stipend to purchase additional PPE (personal protection equipment) beyond what the district will provide.

Some teachers are stressed about safety; this is evident from emails between Leyko and ELEA president Tim Akers, obtained by an ELi reader through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and shared with ELi. The FOIA results show that Akers sent Leyko a list of concerns that teachers had submitted anonymously through a survey about teaching in-person. Some of the most frequently cited concerns were:

How would students maintain 6 feet of distance? Who would be in charge of sanitizing classrooms? How would lunchtime work? How would teachers get breaks during the day while trying to minimize contacts? What should teachers do if a student came to school sick or refused to wear their mask? What would time off look like if the teacher needed to quarantine or fell ill with Covid-19 or another illness?

The district will negotiate with the ELEA, the union that represents teachers, to come up with a letter of agreement that addresses some of these issues. 

ELEA President Tim Akers at the July 28, 2020 School Board meeting.

But those negotiations will happen under the understanding that union president Tim Akers will be stepping down, effective Jan. 19. During public comment, Akers referred to an inflammatory post on the ELEA Facebook as the impetus for his resignation. 

An ELi reader passed along the later-deleted post, which read, “Parents need to give up the fantasy that their kids making incredible academic progress this year is more important than people not dying. This is opportunity hoarding and a vision that your own kid deserves to excel academically right now more than others deserve to live, have housing, eat. It’s immoral and ignores the fact that we live in a community with others.”

The post stirred controversy and even became the subject of a national Breitbart article. At Monday’s meeting, Akers said that the post does not reflect the views of the membership as a whole. Many members are parents whose children are engaged in online learning and understand how difficult remote learning has been for families.

Akers took responsibility for not removing the post sooner and said he would step down as president of ELEA.

Three board members will also be leaving come the new year as a result of the November 2020 election. Leyko’s contract was also renewed through 2026.

Monday’s meeting was the last for President Erin Graham and Trustees Nichole Martin and Trustee Hilary Henderson. All three thanked their Board colleagues, Leyko, administrators, teachers, students, and the community for their support during their respective tenures.

Fellow trustees also praised the three departing women for their dedication and various approaches to problem solving and supporting the district.

In January, Monica Fink, Elizabeth Guerrero Lyons, and Debbie Walton will join the Board.

The Board unanimously approved a contract for Superintendent Leyko, which runs through June 2026. Trustees praised Leyko for her work in the district.

[This article was updated at 9:38 a.m. on Dec. 15 to include information on Superintendent Dori Leyko’s contract.]

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