In what some residents are calling a jurisdiction-breaching move, six Ann Arbor City Council members and Mayor Christopher Taylor signed a public letter Sunday night addressed to the Ann Arbor Public Schools Board of Education demanding further planning and action around a return to in-person and hybrid learning in the district.
The move comes after weeks of debates over the safety of in-person teaching and a Jan. 31 protest by AAPS students and parents requesting the option to return to classrooms in-person. AAPS has been fully virtual since March 2020.
According to a Facebook post from Councilmember Jen Eyer, D-Ward 4, who is one of the letter’s signatories, their specific demands include an accelerated return to in-person learning amid declining COVID-19 cases and increasing vaccinations, confirmation of the district’s hybrid in-school learning plan and a target date of return, as well as greater communication regarding plans for the Fall 2021 semester.
In their letter, the councilmembers emphasized the importance of in-person learning and the negative impact a lack of in-person instruction has on students’ wellbeing.
“The extended absence of in-school learning harms the emotional and mental state of students and stresses already stressed families,” the letter reads. “These harms are universal, but they are compounded among homes with young students and community members who are resource-deprived or who have special needs.”
This letter from some councilmembers comes after AAPS Superintendent Jeanice Swift announced mid-January that the district would conduct remote instruction indefinitely, given continued difficulty for teachers to acquire the COVID-19 vaccine and the presence of the B.1.1.7 variant in Ann Arbor. She explicitly said there was no specific date set for the start of hybrid-learning, though she wrote that the district would plan for possible in-person options with community input.
Swift also laid out the district’s stages for return to in-person learning, beginning with “students with high-level specialized learning needs” who choose to return. Other priority groups include pre-school and kindergarten age students as well as small groups of middle and high school groups to receive in-school learning center support.
In a Jan. 8 press conference, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer urged all schools to offer in-person instruction beginning March 1. Despite guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing that schools are not major sites for COVID-19 transmission if proper protocols are enforced, some AAPS parents and teachers are reluctant to return to classrooms — especially as COVID-19 cases among University of Michigan students remain high.
Traditionally, decisions on schools, outside of the allocation of funding, fall outside of the jurisdiction of the city council. However, the officials who authored the letter wrote that the AAPS trustees have commented on similar issues before city council in the past, and that this case allows for an exception.
“As officials elected to govern the City of Ann Arbor rather than its schools, it is proper that we maintain our separate spheres, but that principle is not absolute,” the letter says.
The letter does acknowledge the struggles of opening schools, such as providing meals and transportation safely and accommodating students with medical challenges. In particular, it notes that AAPS “serves many more medically fragile and IEP students than most other districts.”
“We are not K-12 teachers or doctors,” the letter says. “We have a limited appreciation of AAPS physical infrastructure. … We honor the difficulty of your task, even in the best of times.”
Councilmember Travis Radina, D-Ward 3, said in an email to The Daily that city council has already been in communication with the Board of Education, but the letter could serve as a message to constituents indicating their support for a return to in-person learning.
“The hybrid plan, for which we are advocating, should provide a choice for parents whose children are doing well to keep their kids at home, while allowing our most vulnerable and struggling students the option to return to a structured classroom setting that is best for their education outcomes,” Radina wrote.
Councilmember Linh Song, D-Ward 2, is also a supporter of the letter. She told The Daily that prior to signing on, she contacted state officials regarding updates on vaccine distributions.
“I didn’t want to make this letter sound like … we were encouraging schools to reopen and risk teachers’ health and their families’ health,” Song said. “I wouldn’t have signed on if I hadn’t heard that vaccines are coming.”
In a Monday morning comment posted to Twitter, Councilmember Kathy Griswold, D-Ward 2, explained her decision to not sign the letter.
“As a former AAPS trustee (2001-05), I did not consider it appropriate for me to give advice in a public #A2council letter,” Griswold wrote. “I have privately advised when asked and supported AAPS in other ways.”
Griswold told The Daily on Monday afternoon that she thinks a resolution would have served as a better option than the letter. She added that she would see this letter as a step in the right direction if it pushes the council toward better collaboration with the board.
“I remember probably 15 years ago … that we had a much better working relationship between the school district and the city, and I definitely would support a better relationship at all levels,” Griswold said. “And so if this letter is the first step in sort of improving that relationship, then it’s a positive step.”
Washtenaw residents are also divided over the letter. Trische’ Duckworth, an antiracist activist in the community and founder of Survivors Speak, expressed disappointment with the stark contrast between how city council members responded to constituents’ concerns with remote learning versus how they have responded to the prevalence of racism in the district in the past. The letter alludes to “unjust disparity in loss suffered throughout BIPOC communities,” which Duckworth challenged as false allyship.
“Don’t use our plight when it’s convenient for you, but watch us suffer the whole way through,” Duckworth said. “You’re not an ally when you do that, because you’re using our pain for your own purpose.”
Svetlana Toder, a graduate student at the University, voiced support for the letter’s demands, emphasizing the need for in-person services for students with special needs. As an MSW candidate specializing in child and family welfare, she described the burden single-parent households have faced amid remote learning that in-person learning alleviates.
“A lot of those parents have to quit their jobs to stay at home with their children and support them during virtual learning,” Toder said. “So they had to lose their income, but also they’re not able to actually support children with online learning, especially if there are multiple children of different ages in the household.”
Ann Arbor Board of Education Trustee Jeff Gaynor wrote in an email to The Daily he thinks city council members have the right to comment on the opening of schools.
“I’m sure they are hearing from many constituents and want them to know that they are hearing them,” Gaynor wrote. “I respect their opinions. The School Board stays informed and is eager to hear from the community. We will weigh all of this as we make decisions.”
AAPS President Bryan Johnson did not respond to The Daily’s request for comment in time for publication.
This is a developing story and will be updated.
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown challenges at all of us — including The Michigan Daily — but that hasn’t stopped our staff. We’re committed to reporting on the issues that matter most to the community where we live, learn and work. Your donations keep our journalism free and independent. You can support our work here.
For a weekly roundup of the best stories from The Michigan Daily, sign up for our newsletter here.