Emails Show Some School Board Members Asked About Earlier Actions

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Raymond Holt for ELi

Superintendent Dori Leyko and School Board Trustee Chris Martin at the Jan 27, 2020, meeting of the ELPS Board.

East Lansing Public Schools unveiled its Continuity of Learning plan last Thursday, providing families with various options for how their children will complete the remainder of the academic year.

Emails among ELPS leaders starting March 12, obtained by ELi through a Freedom of Information Act request, show the challenges ELPS Superintendent Dori Leyko faced navigating state-level orders and regulations. (March 12 was the day Governor Gretchen Whitmer first ordered closure of all Michigan K-12 schools.)

The emails also show some School Board trustees pushed for earlier action on certain issues.

Before the Governor’s closure order, Leyko and ELPS Board of Education President Erin Graham had been monitoring developments in other states to see how they had dealt with the transition to remote learning. Board members held different opinions on when to start taking decisive action.

School Board Trustee Chris Martin called for early action in terms of school closure, writing on March 12, a few hours before the Governor’s call for closure, “I’m personally of the opinion that if a student or staff member shows up in a school with COVID-19, it will already be too late and we risk putting the whole community in danger.”

He called (as he had before) for an emergency meeting of the Board, which would have enabled the Board to discuss the matter publicly. That emergency meeting didn’t happen, and the discussions continued on email.

The emails released also indicate that Leyko elected to wait for guidance from Ingham Intermediate School District and the Michigan Department of Education before making any specific plans for remote learning. One concern was the understanding that any plans made would likely have to change to meet still-emerging state guidelines.

ELPS Board of Trustees Vice President Terah Chambers at the Jan. 27, 2020, meeting of the board (photo by Raymond Holt)

Two weeks after the Governor’s first order to close schools, on March 26, Board Vice President Terah Chambers emailed Leyko, asking what Leyko planned to do if the schools were ordered closed the remainder of the year. Leyko said she was still waiting for guidance.

That day, Leyko told members of the School Board, “We are going to begin exploring options by gathering device and internet access data from our families, likely next week…just as a starting point.”

She added, “To be completely transparent, though, it’s been an exhausting (physically, mentally, emotionally) couple weeks, and we are all truly just surviving day to day.” She praised her staff for their dedication and work.

Then, on March 31, two days before Whitmer would order schools not reopen for the rest of the school year, Lekyko let the Board know, “While we anxiously await for further direction and guidance from the Governor’s office and from MDE [Michigan Department of Education], we have been busy exploring and evaluating some other possible continuous learning plans.”

It was the top administration, at that point, looking into possible ideas. Leyko referred to her meetings with superintendents from neighboring school districts and ELPS school principals in numerous emails to the board.

When directions did come down from the state, Leyko would not ask ELPS teachers to work on the Continuity of Learning plan during the week of April 6, because that had been designated as Spring Break. That made developing a detailed plan at that point virtually impossible.

Tim Akers, East Lansing High School English teacher and President for the ELEA (teachers’ union), tells ELi, “Dori told me early on that the District planned to treat Spring Break as it was originally scheduled. She neither requested that teachers do any work over that period, nor did I cite any contractual language to preclude the possibility – it was never an issue either of us brought up. Had she asked, I’m certain we would have been able to work something out, as most of our teaching staff has been eager to get back to business in any way possible.”

According to the plan ultimately submitted to the Ingham Intermediate School District for approval last week, members of the school board “were provided a copy of the draft plan and offered the opportunity to provide input and feedback.” Parents and members of the Parent Equity Team, District Parent Council, and others were also able to provide feedback.

ELi was unable to obtain information on specific comments made by board members on the plan or which specific parents commented on the plan.

According to information in the continuity of learning plan submitted by ELPS, district-level administrators developed general guidelines and also consulted with union representatives. Building-level administrators then individualized the plans to meet their specific needs. Teachers provided feedback on the building-level plans.

Students won’t be coming back to East Lansing High School this school year. Prom is cancelled, as are all athletic events. Graduation ceremony remains an open question.

The plan includes information on how ELPS will continue to offer free food to students who would normally have obtained it via the schools. The internal emails show that food distribution was a main concern and a big effort for Leyko and Graham, who both offered their personal time and energy to assist in distribution.

The emails also confirm that the District could simply not sustain the approach of feeding anyone who showed up.

Answering questions from the Lansing State Journal, on April 9 Lekyo wrote, “We were seeing huge increases in the amounts of people coming through our drive-thru for meals and needed to assess other options going forward.”

As for the curricula, ELPS is now offering hybrid model of instruction and will “offer hard copy instructional packets and online learning platforms.” Families with internet access can check-out tablets and laptops from the district before the plan’s implementation. ELPS has provided families with information on how to procure free internet access.

Families who follow the online track will find all material for the week posted by 8:00 a.m. every Monday morning. Activities that offer differentiation and multiple methods of engagement will accompany the videos. Teachers will also provide opportunities for class meetings and office hours.

Families opting to use instructional packets instead of the online format can pick up items or have them dropped off. Phone conferencing, emails, and notes on packets will supplement learning.

ELPS is also working to accommodate IEPs by developing Individualized Contingency Learning Plans in consultation with “students’ case managers or providers in consultation with each student’s support team.”

All students will receive feedback, not grades, on their work as they continue to earn credit for the academic year. According to the high school’s plan, moving education off-site should not hurt students’ grades.

Students who were receiving a passing grade as of March 11, 2020 will receive “CR” denoting “credit” on their transcripts. No students will fail. Instead, students will receive an “I” or incomplete and can make up the credit. All transcripts with denote COVID-19 to explain grades were given during the pandemic.

The high school plan considers the needs of students who speak languages other than English at home, students whose parents cannot assist with homework, students who have special education needs, students coping with the illness or death of a family member, those struggling with anxiety, and staff who are working remotely while acting as caregivers within their families.

Each school building has specifics for its own plans that follow the general principles and guidelines established in the district continuity of learning plan.

Construction is stalled on the new Whitehills (above) and Pinecrest elementary schools. Internal emails show Leyko has been “hugely worried” about the ability to get these projects completed on time. Read more about that issue from ELi.

At the ELPS School Board meeting on April 13, Superintendent Dori Leyko emphasized that the plan was compassionate and aimed to accommodate diverse needs.

Week 0, as was outlined in the plan, is already behind us, having run from April 13-17. During Week 0, teachers, staff, and administration worked together to coordinate content and platforms, plan for accessibility and ADA compliance, and identify essential learning outcomes. (This was the first week back from the designated “Spring Break.”)

Week 1 begins today and will ease students back into the learning environment. Learning packets will be distributed, and students can become familiar with online tools.

East Lansing High School notified families that teachers will use Week 1 to connect with students and identify their specific needs and family situation while also establishing engagement expectations.

Week 2 is devoted to supplemental learning and review. Beginning Week 3, which starts May 4, students will begin to learn new material.

You can see the district’s continuity of learning plan here, and the material obtained through the Freedom of Information Act through this link.

Update: When originally published, this article stated that Leyko could not ask the teachers to work during the previously designated Spring Break because of the negotiated contracts. We received a correction to this from Tim Akers, ELEA (teachers’ union) President, and so corrected this and added his statement to the article. We also corrected an item on the free meals – Leyko says they are still available to anyone with children 18 years or younger and for those 26 and under with special needs.

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