Superintendent and School Board Members Respond to Push for Detailed Reopening Plan

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Photo from ELPS bond update

Interior image of the new Glencairn Elementary School from the Jan. 2020 bond update (before the public health emergency).

Michigan’s Governor Gretchen Whitmer and state legislative leaders reached an agreement about reopening of K-12 schools yesterday. But, as The Bridge reports, the deal “leaves most instructional choices to local districts.”

And one School Board member in the East Lansing Public Schools district – Chris Martin – continues to be frustrated that ELPS has no detailed plan for what return-to-school will look like.

Martin noted to ELi earlier this week that an online interactive tool provided in a recent New York Times opinion essay entitled “Is Your Child’s School Ready to Reopen” uses recent data to determine that, here in Ingham County, “Elementary and middle schools can reopen; high schools can partially reopen.”

That’s because of the relatively low rate of Covid-19 here.

New York Times

Graphic from informational interactive tool published by the New York Times on Aug. 14, 2020.

But there are currently no clear metrics in East Lansing for when the public schools will return to some or all in-person classes, and no detailed plan for what that return will look like.

Having previously taught disadvantaged children in the New York Public Schools and having seen the differences quality public schools can make in addressing social disparities, Martin explains that he is especially worried about “the students who require the resources of our schools most.”

Martin notes that the Preparedness and Response Plan – passed by the Board on Monday with only him voting against – “was over 30 pages long, with very few specifics” about what return to school is going to be handled when the time comes.

“In essence,” he says, “we are in the same position as we were on March 12.” 

Martin is frustrated in part that ELPS does not seem to be taking advantage of having at its disposal large numbers of experts at MSU who could be helping with smart planning right now. He points to the more-developed plan for the Cambridge Public Schools (in Cambridge, Mass.). That district also has a Safety & Facilities Manual for Covid-19 management developed with a pediatrician’s consultation.

Closer to home, Martin points to the plan for East Grand Rapids Public Schools. Says Martin, these are the kinds of plans he wants developed now.

“I’m not advocating a hasty return to in-person instruction, but I think we owe it to the community to engage the process, so that we are prepared when the time is right.”

“I support the reasoning behind waiting until September 30 to evaluate the impact of the influx of MSU students,” he explained, “but we need to think concretely about how we will know it is safe to begin some face-to-face instruction and what that instruction will look like in the time of coronavirus. We have had five months to engage that process.”

ELPS, he suggests, is well behind on the job.

But Superintendent Dori Leyko and Board members who responded disagree with him. This week, ELi asked the rest of the School Board and Superintendent Dori Leyko to respond to Martin’s stated concerns. (We allowed three days for responses, and you can see the full responses here.)

Raymond Holt for ELi

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

In her response, Leyko defended the degree of progress made, writing, “Our administrators, teachers, instructional coaches, and support staff have been learning new skills and preparing learning experiences for our students in ways they’ve never done before, and I believe their time is best spent focusing on the upcoming weeks.”

Board Vice President Terah Chambers, Professor and Associate Dean for Equity and Inclusion in MSU’s College of Education, is also satisfied with the pace of progress and said she believes “it would have been devastating for our district had a majority of Board members voted with Trustee Martin against this plan.” 

She says while the plan passed isn’t perfect, “I strongly believe that the plan we passed Monday is the best one for our district at this time.” Chambers believes also that “It represents an extraordinary amount of work by our administration to hear from various stakeholders to find a plan that provides flexibility for teachers and families but also attends to important health and safety concerns.”

School Board President Erin Graham responded that everyone wants to get students back “as soon as safely possible,” and Trustee Kate Powers expressed gratitude towards the ELPS administrators, teachers, and staff for their work.

Said Powers, “I have trust and faith in them as the educational experts on the frontline in our district that they will continue to do the same in the coming weeks as we all navigate the Coronavirus Pandemic.” 

School Board Treasurer Kath Edsall said she disagrees with Martin’s “assessment of the work that has been done to date.” She says that she thinks ELPS’s plans are up to par with peers and the state’s and CDC’s guidelines.

“Every board member wants our students back in the classroom as soon as safely possible,” said Edsall, a veterinarian. “Sadly, medicine is not an exact science. Our district leadership team has put in the yeoman’s work to create a plan that will keep kids safe and bring them back to face to face learning when that is safe. This plan will evolve as it has since March. That is how science works.”

The remaining two members of the Board, Nichole Martin (no relation to Chris Martin) and Hillary Henderson, did not provide responses.

One of the example districts Chris Martin cites as a good example, Cambridge, Mass., operates in a system in which the county health department provides a pediatrician to advise the schools as a “Medical Director for School Health and Public Health Programs.” I asked Ingham County Health Department official Linda Vail if Ingham County has any sort of similar program.

“We do not,” Vail answered by email earlier today. “We have a medical director and myself who provide that kind of guidance. Return to school guidance is in the hands of all the districts.”

She explained further, “Cambridge has a different model” in which the County is “responsible for all school health. We are not. The school districts here have jurisdiction and in some cases have school RNs or health programs.”

As ELi reported, one local pediatrician – Jane Turner – who served for a time on the ELPS School Board, believes the district should “think about treating different ages differently.” On July 27, she told the School Board that younger children are particularly at risk educationally by being expected to learn remotely.

Speaking to data available at the time, 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.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “At this time, it appears that severe illness due to COVID-19 is rare among children,” but the AAP call for continuing careful monitoring.

Children are not the only people who would be put at risk by reopening, though, and for now, the ELPS district administration does not appear to be actively consulting pediatricians as it manages the approach to the uncertain new school year.

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