AAPS and Washtenaw County Health Department sign letter calling for schools to reopen safely

Thursday, October 15, 2020 - 9:16pm

Ann Arbor public schools around are working together to adapt a learning environment which meets new safety standards.

Ann Arbor public schools around are working together to adapt a learning environment which meets new safety standards. Buy this photo
Becca Mahon/Daily

In an attempt to find a compromise between a COVID-19 safe environment and in-person schooling, Washtenaw County Health Department and Washtenaw Intermediate School District released a call to action on Oct. 12, emphasizing the importance of a joint community effort to bring kids back to schools safely. 

“We wanted to raise awareness,” Naomi Norman, the interim superintendent of Washtenaw Intermediate School District, said. “Our ability to go back to school successfully face-to-face was dependent not only on our schools having really strong safety protocols, but that as a larger community, as families and all the people who touch our families, we all have to be working together on having healthy practices so that we can minimize the spread of COVID-19.”

Ann Arbor Public Schools is one of the few school districts in Washtenaw County doing virtual learning. The call to action letter says all school communities have the responsibility to look after one another.

“Even when you feel like you’re in your own bubble or in your own space, you are part of a larger Washington County community and we have to count on everyone,” Norman said. “Every one of us matters to this effort.”

The letter said teachers and staff are missing their students and that there is mutual effort needed from both the school districts and the communities as a whole to bring students back. The call to action lists important safety guidelines to help minimize the spread of COVID-19, such as hand washing, getting a flu vaccine, wearing face masks and practicing social distancing. Currently, 30 district officials, including the nine public school superintendents, have signed the joint call-to-action letter. 

Huron High School history teacher Jeff DeMoss is one of the many teachers who are striving to create a virtual community. He said Zoom is not conducive to a positive and healthy classroom environment.

“Creating a community for me relies a lot upon people practicing some vulnerability and being willing to share things about their identity, about their political or social beliefs,” DeMoss said. “When it’s on a screen, and people are just in their room frequently with their cameras off, students don’t feel safe to share.” 

AAPS has put effort into creating support systems for students and teachers. DeMoss said teachers went through weeks of professional development to establish the new virtual education proceedings. He also said students have been creating community through different clubs and organizations. 

Huron High School senior Aakarsh Verma said adjusting to online school has been difficult but has created a sense of camaraderie among students.

“Overcoming a lot of those technical difficulties that are bound to arise when you transition to an entirely virtual platform for learning,” Verma said. “We’ve been patient with our teachers and we’ve been helping them where we can and that has established a sort of community through the shared learning curve that has brought us together.” 

DeMoss said he was concerned that virtual learning affects students’ mental health.

“They are isolated,” DeMoss said. “But those connections are not able to fully be there, the same as if we were in-person.” 

The mental and social health of students are one of the main concerns of virtual schooling, but many school districts are facing difficult decisions on whether or not these social and mental concerns hold precedence over the concern of a COVID-19 outbreak in a school. 

When contacted for comment, Andrew Cluley, AAPS director of communications, directed The Michigan Daily to the AAPS COVID dashboard where AAPS highlights the metrics the district is looking for to bring students back. These metrics include 14 days of a downward trend in positive cases across the country, 7-20 new positive cases per million and less than 3% risk rate determined by the MI Safe Smart Map.

The call to action says there needs to be a joint effort from the community and the school districts to ensure a safe school environment. 

“I hope to see them (schools) following COVID guidelines,” Verma said. “These are not normal times — we're in the middle of a global pandemic. And we can't act like we aren't.”

Contributor Shannon Stocking can be reached at sstockin@umich.edu


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