Tess Crowley/Daily. Buy this photo.

Following weeks of contention over the lack of in-person education in Ann Arbor Public Schools, the AAPS Board of Education voted Wednesday to begin phasing in a hybrid plan for in-person instruction starting March 25.

The district, which has been fully remote since March 2020, will continue to offer an online learning option for families who wish to remain online. Around 750 community members listened in to Wednesday’s vote.

“The question has always been a matter of when we will return, not if,” AAPS Superintendent Jeanice Swift said. “We recognize that this time has presented significant challenges for everyone. Our children need in-school learning opportunities, our staff and parents who’ve worked so valiantly at kitchen tables, across this community, and everyone has made so many sacrifices.”

On Monday, six Ann Arbor City Council members and Mayor Christopher Taylor signed a public letter to the BOE urging AAPS to return to in-person and hybrid learning. Citing the negative repercussions of keeping schools closed on students’ mental health and wellbeing, the city officials asked the BOE to begin serious discussions about reopening schools as soon as possible.

“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 City Council letter came after Swift announced in mid-January that remote instruction would continue indefinitely due to confirmed cases of the more contagious B.1.1.7 variant among University of Michigan students and ongoing vaccine shortages.

The district will begin Stage One on March 25 by phasing in PreK-12 students who learn in “self-contained classroom placements,” meaning students with special needs will work in small groups with special education teachers. Stage One also includes preschool students, Young Five students, kindergarten students and small groups of students in grades 6-12. 

Stage Two begins on April 5 and includes first and second grade students. Stages Three and Four both begin on April 12 — Stage Three allows third, fourth and fifth grade students to return, and Stage Four begins a phased return of all students in grades 6-12. 

Tuesday evening, AAPS leaders announced a partnership with Michigan Medicine and Integrated Health Associates to quickly vaccinate teachers and staff in mass vaccination programs this coming weekend. Swift said this decision significantly impacted the reopening recommendation and Wednesday’s vote.

Swift said vaccinating teachers and staff and offering frequent testing to students were two key components in creating the hybrid plan. To mitigate potential spread, Swift announced that the district will also be able to offer in-school rapid testing for students, which aligns with one of the new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for reopening schools.

“This is critically important, as an extra layer of protection and of confidence for our parents, and for students and for staff,” Swift said.

The district is also planning for a “robust” summer program, with further details being announced in March, Swift said. Swift said the district is planning for a full return to in-school learning in fall 2021.

“I also want to declare our intent on a full return to school in the Ann Arbor Public Schools this fall, a full five days per week of instruction for students and staff,” Swift said. “Certainly, if there is any unforeseen event that would change that ability, we would be the first ones to immediately be in communication with our trustees and with our community on any change, but that is our intention.”

Some Ann Arbor residents and AAPS parents said AAPS’ choice to remain all virtual since March 2020 placed a heavy toll on many children, particularly those with learning disabilities who rely on professionally-trained staff. Ann Arbor residents have also raised concerns about the disproportionate effects COVID-19 has placed on families of color, particularly Black families, which can further widen the disparities that exist for people of color.

The Ann Arbor Board of Education voted to approve the hybrid plan 6-0, with Trustee Ernesto Querijero abstaining from the vote, saying that the time change of the meeting could violate board policy.

After the vote, the Board of Education reconvened at 7 p.m. to hear public comments from over 200 submissions. All names and comments were submitted prior to the vote to phase in the hybrid plan and were given 15 seconds to be read aloud to the Board.

Allison Plagens wrote the school year has been very upsetting for her family, and urged the Board to provide transparency for the decision-making process to reopen.

“We feel trapped by your school system,” Plagens wrote. “As a low income family we have weighed the pros and cons of staying in AAPS and if we are able to leave due to what has happened this school year. All my family wants in honesty at this point.” 

Yuriy Goykhman, a parent of a second grader at Eberwhite Elementary School, shared concerns about the district’s previous actions.

“With so many empty promises, denial of science and compete disregard of the needs of a large portion of the community AAPS leadership and the board have lost the trust of the community,” Goykhman wrote. “AAPS families are leaving the district in droves – it is very difficult to find housing in nearby districts and all the private schools have long waitlists.” 

Though most of the comments urged AAPS to approve the hybrid plan, Nicole Turcotte-Ruiz, a mother of a first grader in AAPS, expressed doubt about the success of the proposed model to return to the classroom. 

“The proposed Hybrid Model that has teachers instructing both in-person and virtual students simultaneously seems ambitious at best and more likely downright impossible,” Turcotte-Ruiz wrote.

Daily News Editor Kristina Zheng can be reached at krizheng@umich.edu

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.