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Ann Arbor resident Kathy Bishop gets her two children up at 7 a.m. every day. They get dressed, brush their teeth and then rush down to the kitchen, which becomes chaotic upon entry. She herds both kids to the kitchen table, where their prepared breakfast and their medication is waiting. Both children are diagnosed with ADHD, so the kitchen chaos remains until their medication sets in. 

After taking their medicine and eating breakfast, Bishop, a single parent, begins the challenge of trying to get both kids to sit down at their computers for virtual school at Allen Elementary School, which starts at 8:13 a.m. Her eleven-year-old son participates in school from his bedroom on the second story and her eight-year-old daughter on the first floor adjacent to the kitchen. After both kids are at their desks, she is able to step away, occasionally with enough time to shower before settling into her workspace in the basement.

As Bishop checks her email, her daughter is transitioning into her first elective and is experiencing difficulties joining the Zoom. She runs to the first floor and logs her daughter in, then pauses to check her phone. It’s just buzzed to announce an email from her son’s teacher asking why he is not in class. She runs upstairs and convinces her son to log back onto the Zoom. She returns down to her desk, making 15 more trips up the stairs throughout the day. 

By 11:30 a.m., when her kids are released for lunch, she has barely checked her email. 

Bishop’s two children have individualized education programs to help with their ADHD. Up until January, her kids have both been attending school virtually since Ann Arbor Public Schools canceled in-person classes due to COVID-19 in March 2020. In January, Bishop took her daughter out of AAPS and enrolled her into Daycroft Montessori School because of the in-person classes.

Ann Arbor resident Heather Eckner also has two kids enrolled in AAPS, both of whom have IEPs. Her son, who is 12, is on the autism spectrum and in his first year of middle school. Her daughter, who qualifies for a speech and language impairment, is six and in her first year of kindergarten.

Similar to Bishop, Eckner said she and her husband spend all day helping their kids navigate Zoom and answer countless questions while finding time to complete their own jobs. Eckner also said her daughter cannot receive the same amount of teacher or peer support as she would in a classroom setting.

“My middle schooler can mostly navigate the space himself which is good because my daughter basically needs one-on-one adult support at all times,” Eckner said. “She can’t read prompt boxes, and she doesn’t know where to go and isn’t able to find her materials, so she really needs constant adult support.” 

Bishop’s daughter struggles with reading and relied on help outside of class from teachers while school was in-person. At the beginning of the pandemic from March to June, teachers spent time with Bishop’s daughter outside of class, reading side by side over an iPad. 

“I can’t say enough (great) things about my daughter’s reading specialist,” Bishop said. “She read with her over the summer, she even dropped off a bag of books to my daughter at the end of the school year and then called her every single week from her cabin up north to read with my daughter to make sure she didn’t get more behind in reading.”

Over the summer, AAPS developed plans and policies regarding the execution of a fully virtual learning environment. However, Bishop said when virtual learning started in the fall, teachers were limited in the support they were allowed to provide.

When school began in the fall, Bishop reached out to her daughter’s new special-education teacher to let them know what strategies helped her daughter previously. But now, none of these options were possible because of AAPS’s proceedings for the virtual semester. 

Bishop said she asked teachers to drop off books but was told the teachers were not allowed to. She asked teachers to sit down on a Zoom and read with her daughter, which also was not allowed. She asked teachers to send her a list of books for her daughter to read and offered to go buy them herself, which was not allowed either.

Bishop expressed frustration with her daughter’s situation.

“I thought my head was gonna pop off my shoulders,” Bishop said. “I’m literally just asking you to read with my child. It can be anyone … and I’m telling you, it will help the child with her reading, and they won’t do it.” 

Eckner said she is concerned about the number of IEP cases that will not be addressed until in-person learning resumes. 

“I’m not quite sure how long it will take to learn the extent of each delayed case because the longer we delay providing these kinds of services, the bigger and deeper the hole gets,” Eckner said. “It’s just a really challenging situation with a lot of compounding factors.” 

The plan for a return to in-person school

Following Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s announcement on Jan. 8 recommending all schools offer an in-person option by March 1, AAPS students and parents held a protest on Jan. 30 calling for in-person learning options for students. Additionally, six members of Ann Arbor’s City Council and Mayor Christopher Taylor signed a letter addressed to the AAPS Board of Education Feb. 22 demanding action regarding in-person and hybrid learning.

Despite Whitmer’s recommendation, AAPS has not announced a plan to return students to in-person learning by March 1 or for any date. 

AAPS Superintendent Jeanice Swift released an announcement Jan. 29 laying out three stages the district will focus on in February. These stages include the groups that experts have identified as the most at-risk for experiencing long-term impacts of not being in the classroom to return first, such as those with “high-level specialized learning needs.” Small groups of middle school and high school students who receive support from school’s learning centers will follow next.

Currently, AAPS is basing their return to school on a series of metrics, including less than 20-40 new cases per 1 million Washtenaw County residents, a downward trend in cases, 6-9 cases per 100,000 people and a less than 3% positivity rate. According to a September document listing the metrics, only some of them would need to be reached to consider returning, but all would need to be reached to return.

The current metrics are the same ones established during the fall of 2020, which are now more stringent than what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends. 

Supporting students with disabilities and learning challenges during virtual learning 

A special education teacher, who prefers to stay anonymous out of fear of retaliation from AAPS and will be referred to as Kate, told The Michigan Daily she thinks a concrete schedule for returning to in person learning for students who most need it would be helpful. 

During an in-person school year, Kate is responsible for meeting with students with disabilities and monitoring students who are suspected of having a disability. 

“We can do some observations via Zoom, but it’s dependent on whether the student has their camera on and whether they’re participating,” Kate said. “If they’re not using their camera or if they’re not participating in the chat, it’s really hard to get a good sense of how they’re behaving or how they’re interacting in the class.” 

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, schools are required to identify all students with disabilities and who may qualify for special education services. When a student is suspected of having a disability, the school is responsible for conducting investigations and observations to get the student the assistance they might need to succeed.

“In a typical situation you’re working individually one-on-one with a student,” Kate said. “It’s usually over multiple sessions that you’d be conducting tests, and it might be alternating where I work with the student and then my colleagues work with the student … We have typically 30 school days in order to complete an evaluation.” 

Since classes have been virtual, Kate said she has not been able to identify many students who may qualify for special accommodations in the educational environment. 

Erik Thompson, the AAPS assistant director of student intervention and support services, addressed concerns about not being able to carry out the needs of specific students’ IEPs in a Sep. 1 information session.

“While there are some limitations in a virtual setting, it is our goal to fully implement IEPs as designed and written to the greatest extent possible,” Thompson said during the information session. “If there are services and supports in the IEP that cannot be implemented in a virtual setting … then a good faith effort contingency learning plan will be developed outside of the IEP in collaboration with parents and in accordance to the IEP.” 

AAPS introduced a Good Faith Effort Contingency Learning Plan as an alternative for students with IEPs or disabilities. Kate said the CLP is a way to provide support and services to students while they are not in the classroom.

AAPS investment in technology for virtual learning 

AAPS’s plan for the virtual semester relies heavily on technology and online education programs. They have spent more $4.3 million on technology to aid virtual learning in addition to the costs of online education programs.

These tools may be beneficial to neurotypical students, but for students with disabilities, Bishop said she thinks AAPS is missing the mark.

“The district is making them use all of this stupid technology that they spent millions of dollars on because they want to prove that it works, and it’s not working,” Bishop said. “The parents are telling them it’s not working, but they just insist on continuing to work it, or continue to use it. Every single special-ed professional I’ve talked to is saying exactly the same thing.”

Bishop is concerned her son will miss out on significant social interaction development during the virtual year. 

“They’re ignoring what the parents need and want, they won’t let kids even go to occupational therapy or physical therapy in person,” Bishop said. “My son needs to be in person with his classmates. He’s got issues with interacting with other kids. And all they will offer him are virtual services.”

Eckner said she thinks teachers are making the most of the technology and resources they have. 

“The teachers have tried to make it as streamlined as possible,” Eckner said. “I don’t blame the teachers. It’s just not an ideal format for especially young children, and particularly young children with disabilities.”

Sophia Riegle, a current junior at Ann Arbor Huron High School, has a hearing impairment that makes virtual learning especially difficult. Riegle wears a hearing aid and, during in-person instruction, her teachers wear a Phonak Roger Pen which connects directly to her hearing aid. Without in-person instruction, Riegle no longer has this option and relies on Zoom captioning instead.

“My Zoom has some captioning capability, but it’s not up to speed, it’s like a five-second delay,” Riegle said. “And then whenever we go out into breakout rooms, there’s no captioning ability in there. So that doesn’t help at all.”

The AAPS virtual learning platform Blue Button is a conference call application similar to Zoom but does not offer captioning. This forces Riegle to get creative.

“What I’ve had to do is download a captioning app, to make sure that I’m able to understand everything,” Riegle said. “And if I need to go back and listen, I can go back, but since I don’t want to pay for the captioning app, I only get a limited amount of captioning. So I had to get three captioning apps, and I just switch between them until my time on one app is up.”

AAPS has modified the amount of work for students to accommodate for the virtual semester, but Riegle said she thinks her schoolwork now requires more time and energy.

“I know that they’re giving us less of a workload than usual, but I feel like I have to spend the same amount of time trying to understand and making sure that I heard everything correctly,” Riegle said.

Perspectives on a transition to in-person learning

Despite the difficulties, Riegle said she does not think high school students should return to in-person school. She thinks high school students won’t properly wear their masks and proper social distancing would not be possible.

In contrast, Natalie Muenz, a current Huron High School sophomore, believes it is possible for students to make a safe return to school.

“If we can get all teachers vaccinated, then I think we should probably start rolling out plans and get stuff together and open up the schools,” Muenz said.

Muenz has ADHD but does not have an IEP. She said for her, virtual learning has become normal. Teachers have modified their curriculum and tests are usually open note, which makes virtual learning easier for students. 

Most students keep their cameras off, which makes it difficult for teachers to gauge the participation of students and the effectiveness of their teaching, Muenz said. 

She also said the most challenging part of virtual learning is how she never knows where her class is in the curriculum. 

“I think (teachers) are doing a really good job,” Muenz said. “Of course there’s things here and there that could be better, but they ask for feedback all the time and it’s easy to give it to them, and they usually do something about it.”

Eckner believes AAPS should take immediate action and release a plan to bring younger students and those with disabilities back to school and increase communication.

“(AAPS) really needs to start to make some clear movement towards returning kids in whatever capacity is what’s needed to be safe,” Eckner said. “So if that’s some kind of hybrid grouping certain days a week, then fine, that makes sense. But we’ve got to start making moves towards that, or we’re never going to step foot inside the buildings again this year.” 

Kate has been advocating for an in-person approach for students with disabilities, similar to a clinic. Schools would be open only on certain days with limited hours to offer in-person therapy and special education services on an appointment basis. Kate believes neurotypical students should have the option to return in a hybrid format. 

Kate thinks students with disabilities and specialized learning programs should be among the first to return because of the long-term effects of a lack of in person-learning.

“Over the computer, (students with disabilities) just are not able to kind of get the kind of support and services that they need,” Kate said.

Bishop is strongly advocating for a return to in-person schooling as soon as possible. AAPS has been telling the community about the safety measures and preparation, and it’s time to see it in action, Bishop said. 

“The virtual education approach is a system set up for special ed parents to just give up,” Bishop said. “They’ve refused to listen to the needs of the parents and the kids have not had a voice … their job is to care for kids and think about how kids are getting educated, and it seems like their concern has largely been about the concerns of the (district). I find it to be really negligent.” 

Ann Arbor Public Schools did not respond to The Daily’s request for comment in time for publication.

Daily Staff Reporter Shannon Stocking can be reached at sstockin@umich.edu.

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