When Ann Arbor Public Schools announced a shift to remote learning for students in A2STEAM schools on Oct. 25, AAPS parent and LSA junior Patrick Gallagher said the announcement’s short notice was hard to work around. Gallagher said his first-grade son was not able to complete school work that day due to the online format.
“We were notified at 7:30(a.m.), which was 40 minutes before the start of the school,” Gallagher said. “I know a lot of parents who are coming from different parts of Ann Arbor and different parts of Washtenaw County, and they leave the house way before 7:30 to get out here. They were already on their way, there were people getting ready at the bus stop. It was a nightmare.”
The announcement cited a high amount of staff illness and shortages, leading to a move to remote, asynchronous learning. Gallagher, however, said the shift to remote instruction was not well-thought-out, especially without proper learning equipment.
“They said, ‘Hey, you can do remote learning?’ but he is in first grade,” Gallagher said. “They didn’t hand out any devices. There was no real plan. They were not prepared for this. This was not a day of learning. My son didn’t do any school work.”
Prior to the Oct. 25 closure, the district announced on Oct. 21 that three of its schools — Skyline High School, Huron High School and Forsythe Middle School — would all have an emergency closing on Oct. 22 due to staff shortages. Parents and students were notified at 9 p.m. the previous night.
“This is an emergency measure made necessary due to numerous unfilled positions across the district and an inability to fully staff our schools for tomorrow,” AAPS Superintendent Jeanice Swift wrote. “Taking this step to remote learning with these three schools that were most critically impacted by staffing challenges, will allow the AAPS to redeploy substitute personnel to assist with the shortage of staff across other buildings and stretch the resources to staff the remaining schools.”
Most recently, on Oct. 27, Swift announced that all schools in the district will be closed on Nov. 1 to “safely staff” the buildings. Swift said this time of year also typically experiences low attendance rates due to Halloween and the Special Election school holiday on Nov. 2.
Ann Arbor resident Lena Kauffman is the parent of a 10th-grader at Skyline High School and a seventh-grader at Forsythe Middle School. She said her youngest had a hard time with the shift to remote learning, especially after experiencing a full year of remote instruction.
“It was a huge surprise, especially to my middle schooler who reacted very strangely, which I later heard from friends that their middle schoolers also had a hard time with it,” Kauffman said. “She didn’t trust the school was going to be back the next day because she had this experience from the previous year … It made me really sad that she didn’t trust her school district and the grown-ups anymore.”
Ypsilanti resident Robyn Kaiser is the parent of a 10th-grader at Skyline High School. Kaiser said her son was frustrated with the move online and anxious about the possibility of more frequent closings in the future.
“(My son) was frustrated,” Kaiser said. “The concern was that (Swift) was just going to keep doing this and they are not going to be able to go to school and they will go backwards to where they were last year. It does definitely provide a level of anxiety for him.”
Swift sent an Oct. 22 update to the AAPS community, in which she said 112 teacher positions were unfilled, leading to a shift in remote learning.
“We take any decisions to temporarily transition to remote learning very seriously as we continue to prioritize daily in-school learning in the AAPS,” Swift wrote. “However, when levels of staff illness and absences exceed the number of substitutes available — today 112 teacher positions were unfilled as well as high numbers of absences across many other school positions — this high level of staffing concern prevents the safe opening of schools. In these cases, a temporary transition to remote learning, as occurred today at three schools, will be necessary.”
According to data shared at the Wednesday AAPS Board of Education meeting, the district had a staff fill rate — the percentage of positions covered — of 54.5% on Oct. 22, which then decreased to 51% on Oct. 1. The data also showed that the district saw 506 staff absences on Oct. 22. 162 positions were unfilled on Oct. 22. On Oct. 25, the fill rate was 58.4% with 422 absences.
When asked about the potential reason for so many staff to be absent on one day, Kaiser said it did not seem like a COVID-19 outbreak.
“When I saw the note of her point about cases of COVID, I went and looked at the dashboard that they provide and there was nothing to indicate that there was a COVID issue,” Kaiser said.
Swift said the district saw 32 new COVID-19 cases in 13 different schools during the week of Oct. 22, and the majority of the cases involved students.
Kaiser also said the emergency closing came suddenly for her and her son because they saw no indication of it from teachers.
“He told me that none of his teachers were absent on that day (Oct. 22),” Kaiser said. “What I was told was that his teachers didn’t even know about it till 9 or 10 o’clock the night before and that they were not sick.”
Regarding the announcement that schools would be closed again on Nov. 1, Kaiser stated that her son and his friends consider this decision to be a joke.
“He didn’t like that they arbitrarily decided to get rid of school,” Kaise said. “Ultimately he didn’t mind, it’s just that they had so little press from the superintendent that they (the students) think it is a joke.”
According to Kauffman, the three schools involved in the Oct. 22 closing did not conduct remote classes and were instead instructed to complete homework assignments asynchronously. A2STEAM Schools serve students in kindergarten through eighth grade, most of whom do not stay home alone during the school day — leading to numerous child care issues for parents.
Regarding the upcoming closure on Monday, Gallagher said he felt disbelief because parents already have to make many sacrifices this semester.
“I think it is absurd that (the district is) doing this,” Gallagher said. “I’ve already had to make a lot of stuff work this school year. They also canceled the before and aftercare. They are just asking so much.”
Gallagher also questioned the administration’s preparation for this school year and how they plan to solve staff shortages. Gallagher said staff are not paid enough and only recently received a pay raise. He also said he believes AAPS has not implemented more creative efforts to hire staff.
“They’ve had all summer to prepare for this. They’ve had all year to prepare for this. The pandemic is no longer a new thing,” Gallagher said. “They were really slow to raise the wages for support staff in the school. Now, they’ve only raised the wages incrementally to attract new employees. They are not doing anything creative to attract new staff. They are not doing anything to really solve the problem.”
LSA professor Priti Shah shared her perspective, saying she knows Ann Arbor teachers and sees how much work they are putting in this year to serve students.
“I know teachers in Ann Arbor, but I also work with other districts in the U.S.,” Shah said. “No matter where, the teachers report that this year is the most challenging and exhausting year of their careers. With a shortage of staff, teachers and other staff are doing double duty. Giving up planning periods and lunch is common. If people are overworked already, a less serious illness might take them out when they could otherwise make it through the day.”
Gallagher also said teachers are not the ones to blame in these situations.
“This is not an issue with the teachers or even the principal. This is the superintendent. This is the administration,” Gallagher said.
Furthermore, Gallagher criticized the administration for putting too much pressure on the parents to adjust to these sudden changes and find child care solutions.
“The administration are people who have a lot of power, whose job is to manage the school district and they get paid extraordinarily well,” Gallagher said. “What they are doing is shifting the burden to parents who are already working, going to school, raising their kids, making tons of sacrifices for COVID. We are not managing the school district together. It’s not our job. If they keep canceling days throughout the school year, you have to start questioning their competence.”
Kaiser also said these recent closures are a result of the administration’s planning.
“I think it is absolutely incompetence,” Kaiser said. “That goes to the leadership and the planning. If it is COVID-related, then why aren’t the numbers indicating that on the dashboard? The number should be way higher. This strikes me as a complete leadership failure — this is not a COVID-related policy (problem).”
Gallagher also stated that many of the parents who are affected by sudden closures are tired and frustrated by the constant closures.
“There’s a lot of parents,” Gallagher said. “You are probably not getting a hold of them because they are not the ones at the school board meetings. They are too busy and they are not here using their voice. There are a lot of people who are being unheard and who are rolling over and taking it because they just don’t have the time and energy to keep fighting this stuff.”
Kauffman also demanded that the district give the community some answers about why the district closed so suddenly.
“I really hope the district clears this up because there’s rumors that are just flying and I don’t think that’s helpful,” Kauffman said. “There were hundreds of teachers out suddenly and unexpectedly, and I think the community needs some answers.”
Daily Staff Reporter Caroline Wang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.