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With toddlers swaddled warmly in strollers, babies on parents’ shoulders and homemade signs in hand, over 100 parents, community members and Ann Arbor Public School students gathered downtown Saturday afternoon chanting “lead with facts, not with fear” in protest against AAPS’ decision to offer remote-only instruction indefinitely during the pandemic.

Ann Arbor Reasonable Return (A2R2) — an advocacy group seeking a reasonable approach to reopening schools — protested in front of the Ann Arbor Post Office on E. Liberty St. to demand in-person options for AAPS. More than 600 community members have signed a petition for in-person options, and nearly 130 physicians and pediatric providers signed a letter supporting A2R2’s goals.

Since Gov. Gretchen Whitmer shut down all K-12 schools in Michigan at the start of the pandemic, the district has implemented a virtual learning plan called Reimagine Learning to help students succeed during the pandemic. In early January, Whitmer announced that the state was recommending that all K-12 schools offer in-person learning options by March 1.

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released updated guidelines saying schools can safely reopen with masks and social distancing requirements, citing evidence that shows schools are not a huge driver of community transmission. 

Many parents and Ann Arbor residents who oppose a return to in-person learning fear that opening schools could widen disparities that exist for people of color, particularly Black people, who are disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The district, as well as some parents and teachers, also cite the lack of vaccines for teachers and the cluster of the B.1.1.7 COVID-19 variant in Ann Arbor as reasons to stay with virtual learning.

Since the state began distributing the COVID-19 vaccine in December, more parents are pushing to put their children back into a classroom rather than in front of a screen. In mid-January, teachers became eligible to receive the vaccine under Phase 1B, though limited supply has meant that most AAPS teachers have not yet been vaccinated.

Lena Kaufman, A2R2 rally organizer and Ann Arbor parent, said the goal of the rally was to support Whitmer’s guidance and encourage schools to offer in-person options for younger students and students who have special needs, since their well-being relies on professionally trained staff provided by the state.

“We’re putting this day together because we really believe that Governor Gretchen Whitmer is right about the fact that schools can be safe, low-risk environments for children and teachers,” Kaufman said. “They have a lot of data now that backs that up over here. Her goal of getting kids, especially the youngest and special needs kids, giving them an option (…) by March 1st is quite reasonable and we want to show up and signal our support.”

Ann Arbor resident Sara Talpos, a science journalist at Undark Magazine, told The Daily she attended the rally because she was concerned about students’ mental health. After reading a New York Times article discussing how Las Vegas public schools were pushed to re-open due to an increase in teenage suicides, Talpos said she hoped AAPS would open safely to avoid this kind of mental health crisis.

“I came out because I’m really concerned about the mental health effect of keeping students outside of classrooms for too long,” Talpos said. “I know that remote learning is working for some kids, but a lot of our kids are very isolated right now, and our local pediatricians have been talking about increases in depression and anxiety, and the recent article by Erica Green on suicides really worries me a lot.”

Kai Cortina, a University of Michigan professor of educational psychology and parent of two AAPS students, spoke to the crowd about how his home country of Germany kept schools open while also ensuring student safety.

“Why is it that the Ann Arbor Public Schools, one of the richest school districts (…) is unable to learn the same way that the entire country has learned how to handle the crisis in schools, I don’t understand it,” Cortina said. 

Alan Simpson-Vlach, a math teacher teaching in person in Oakland County and parent of two AAPS students, said while he is impressed by the district’s investments in virtual learning technology, he worries about the impact of virtual learning on student achievement.

“The achievement gap continues to widen,” Simpson-Vlach said. “Reading progress has come to a standstill. Depression and anxiety have become entrenched, and the well-being of whole families has suffered. Since when did the education of our children become a third-tier priority?” 

Kim Monroe, pediatric hospitalist and AAPS parent, also said virtual classes have led to an increase in mental health issues. Monroe said she believes AAPS is capable of safely reopening schools.

“By this point in time, it’s not even a question of whether it’s safe or not,” Monroe said. “It’s a question of whether we’re going to do it or not, and I truly believe that the AAPS teachers, school board and superintendent can do this. I believe in them and I think that we can make this happen.”

Ann Arbor resident Krysten Salla told The Daily she has observed a lack of resources for students with disabilities and English language learners. 

“(Students with disabilities and English learners) are really suffering and it’s really hard for them to get the services they need,” Salla said. “It’s really making a bigger achievement gap of kids that have the money and the resources to learn at home, or to get extra tutors and the kids that don’t, and those kids are really suffering.”

One Ann Arbor parent, Kristine McWilliams, told The Daily she opted to move her children to a nearby school holding in-person classes.

“Sadly, I am a former parent of Ann Arbor school district children,” McWilliams said. “I have a first and fourth grader, and virtual education was just not an option for us, so we transferred this year to a local charter school.”

Like other parents at the protest, Alan Simpson-Vlach said he believes that with determination and vision, AAPS can bring students back into classrooms safely. 

“I call on the leaders of my school district, the Ann Arbor Public Schools, to get off the dime,” Alan Simpson-Vlactch said. “Stop congratulating yourself on how well you are serving our top students and start serving all students. Get them back in school.” 

Daily News Editor Jasmin Lee can be reached at itsshlee@umich.edu. Daily Staff Reporter Nina Molina can be reached at nimolina@umich.edu.