Ann Arbor community members debate return to in-person instruction in K-12 schools
Despite Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s call for schools to return to in-person instruction by March 1, Ann Arbor Public School officials have announced that they will continue virtually because of the slow pace of faculty vaccinations, the B.1.1.7 variant in Ann Arbor and the state of Michigan’s continued high COVID-19 risk level, garnering mixed reactions from parents and staff.
AAPS Superintendent Jeanice Swift wrote in an update Friday that while instruction will remain virtual, they will monitor the situation and discuss the possibility of a hybrid learning option.
“As we shared most recently on January 13th, we will continue preparation for the addition of a hybrid learning option for those students/parents who may choose this option when it is safe to do so,” Swift wrote.
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released updated guidelines saying schools can reopen with strict safety measures in place, drawing on evidence that shows schools are not a huge driver of community transmission.
Even with these guidelines, some parents and teachers worry that reintroducing in-person learning as cases remain high is unnecessarily risky despite the educational and social benefits. Though the number of positive COVID-19 cases in Washtenaw County may be decreasing, the county’s risk is still high. Additionally, the University of Michigan reported 14 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant last Monday, which is believed to be more contagious.
But otherAnn Arbor parents, frustrated by the news of continued virtual learning, are urging AAPS to reopen safely. On Saturday afternoon, Ann Arbor Reasonable Return — a group advocating for a safe return to in-person instruction — hosted a rally downtown calling on AAPS to consider reopening schools as soon as possible.
Ann Arbor resident Kathy Bishop has one child enrolled in AAPS and another in a private school. Bishop told The Daily that both her children have Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and require an Individualized Education Program, making online learning especially difficult.
“I literally wake up every day and think I must be imagining that in a town of well-educated people, in a district that calls itself ‘exceptional’ and in a school as well-resourced as Ann Arbor, we are the only school in the county and one of only 14% in the state who has not been able to teach even the highest-risk kids in person for one day this year,” Bishop said.
Bishop said she thinks AAPS should have followed in the footsteps of other districts in the state, like Ypsilanti, and offered in-person learning earlier in the year. Bishop said that AAPS has instead failed to effectively communicate, giving parents the false impression last fall that students would return to school this year.
“Returning in person has the connotation of everyone going back, and I don’t think that,” Bishop said. “I advocate for a choice, and I think offering a virtual option for those who it’s working for is also good.”
Facing criticism from community members, the AAPS Board of Education held a meeting last Wednesday, during which they opened up the discussion to public commentary. While many urged the Board to continue with virtual learning, others expressed a desire for students to return to the classroom.
Ann Arbor resident Jesse Kauffman was one of the attendees in favor of in-person instruction. Kauffman said he believed the community’s frustration indicated that the board was not prioritizing the students’ interests.
“You were faced at the outset with a conflict of interest between students and teachers, and you chose teachers,” Kauffman said.
Ann Arbor resident and AAPS teacher Diane Aretz said that as someone with pre-existing conditions, it is comforting to not have to teach in-person and risk exposure to the virus.
“I very much see my concern for my own health and safety as aligned with the concern (...) I have for my students’ health and safety, and that of the community that we serve,” Aretz said. “And I believe that feeling is shared by educators across the district.”
Aretz is also a lead organizer for the Michigan Caucus of Rank and File Educators, known as MI CORE. Aretz said that compared to the experiences of other teachers and districts across the state, AAPS online instruction has been relatively successful.
“As challenging as online learning can be for teachers and students alike, I am convinced that the quality and consistency that we've been able to provide as a district this year have not only saved lives, but also helped with students' social and emotional well-being,” Aretz said.
Jeffrey Hamilton, an AAPS teacher, said AAPS’ performance has been as good as it could be during the pandemic. Hamilton said he is worried the district could choose to reopen when it is not yet safe to do so.
“Reopening too soon can have detrimental consequences,” Hamilton said. “I would like for the district to wait until everyone has been vaccinated or at least had the opportunity to be vaccinated before a return is even considered.”
However, vaccine rollout is slow as the county struggles to receive an adequate number of vaccines from the state. Though teachers fall under Phase 1B and are therefore currently eligible to receive the vaccine, Washtenaw County has a limited supply.
“While some individual AAPS teachers may have been able to get vaccinated at locations across Michigan, at this time, no systemic teacher vaccinations have been administered in Washtenaw County due to the lack of vaccine supply,” Swift’s update wrote.
Kristen Fraser, an Ann Arbor resident and AAPS parent, said the district should wait for the vaccines to be widely distributed before students and teachers return.
“When (Swift) released a statement about hybrid starting early March following the governor's statement, the vaccination rollout had just begun,” Fraser said. “We were hopeful, but it is evident that there are not enough vaccines to reach arms in time for that projection to be safe.”
AAPS parent Emily Sippola, who has children in AAPS middle and high schools, said even though in-person teaching seems more conducive to a productive learning environment, it would bring the community unnecessary uncertainty.
“If we go back to the classroom, and then we have to shut down, we are introducing instability and unpredictability for the kids,” Sippola said. “They will not be able to know what's coming day-to-day. And that's not good for mental health. We need to be able to provide stability and safety for our kids.”
Sippola added that it is important to protect teachers’ health as well as the students’. Though frustrated with virtual learning herself, Sippola said she doesn't think it is right to put the blame on teachers when there are other factors at play.
“None of us signed up for this,” Sippola said. “We didn't want this, we didn't ask for this, we have to do the best we can. And we have to do the best we can without putting people at undue risk and without treating people so poorly.”
Daily Staff Reporter Lily Gooding can be reached at email@example.com