A District Divided: Return to In-Person Learning Debate
By Caden Meyers, Roni Blank, and Ben Bolton
Photo by Roni Blank
Return to face-to-face learning leads to cracks in our community. Juniors here lined up at the school doors, waiting to enter and take the PSAT on October 14. While the teachers urged students to keep adequate distance from each other, the recommended 6 feet of social distance was not always met.
Cases rising. Teachers considering resignation or family medical leave. Parents worrying about the emotional toll on their children with virtual learning. Other parents pleading with the Birmingham Board of Education (BOE) to remain all virtual for the safety and equity of their children and loved ones.
This is how the debate concerning in person vs virtual learning tore at the Birmingham Public School community.
Families, students, teachers, administrators, and board members have watched loved ones succumb to Covid 19. Some staff members continue to mourn loved ones who died from the disease. Other staff members, who contracted Covid, still suffer from chronic fatigue, loss of stability, and other long term consequences. Students who attended sleep overs and caught Covid 19 spent weeks in bed, alone and scared. Many have felt or witnessed Covid 19’s consequences unrelated to catching the disease, such as isolation and depression.
With this background, factions in the district experienced heightened emotions about how to keep learning alive and safe, creating an often polemic response to this complex situation. Among the loudest voices, dichotomous views emerged in the district: delay a return to school until safety and equity could be guaranteed or immediate return to school despite the rising cases, danger of Covid spread, a new, more contagious variant of Covid.
“I’m not sure exactly what’s happening in the school district, but it has become a sad joke. Please look at science, look at the CDC recommendations, look at the surrounding private and public schools that have successfully returned to in person learning. And make a plan, set a date for our kids to get back to school, full day in person as soon as possible. Our children, our families, our teachers are suffering, enough is enough,” Birmingham parent Shanda Albini said at an October 20 BOE meeting.
Parent of two, in grades 3 and 5 at Covington Elementary School, Tom Randolf submitted a parent comment to the November 9 Birmingham Board of Education Meeting in which he called for a return to face-to-face learning, providing strident and creative analogies to support his belief.
“The fire department, the police office, the supermarket, they don't say ‘Well if we didn't operate maybe we might help someone.’ The opposite is true, they say that when there’s a will, there’s a way. And it’s already been demonstrated that it’s far too chaotic and that not having in-person hybrid is creating a lot of chaos and stress, including my daughter’s eyesight going from bad to worse,” Randolf said.
While Randolf worries about his daughter's stress, parents Katie and Josh Dabrowski worried early on about keeping their children away from the virus and lessening the community spread. They submitted a public comment to the August 11 BOE meeting urging the entire district to choose a virtual learning environment.
“I am a mother of three boys in the district that attend Harlan, Derby, and Seaholm. I would like to express my support for online school in the fall. I did attend the town halls and know that it was a difficult decision. The available evidence about Covid in combination with the significant unknowns makes online schools the best decision for our children and for public health. We cannot risk losing a child, teacher, parent, or grandparent when we have other options. In my mind, this must be a decision considered for the whole. I feel that the risks are too great to our community to risk in-person school this fall when we have access to other options. I want to thank the district for its thoughtful and deliberate approach in evaluating all options. I would urge the board to vote in favor of online schooling as the option is the best for our children and keeps all of us safer in these uncertain times,” Dabrowski said.
Birmingham Parent Kristen Jennings’ husband, Jeff Jennings, a Detroit Henry Ford pulmonologist, treated many patients with Covid 19 since March and watched many die. Jennings also urged the board to choose online schooling on October 20.
“With the virus being politicized out of control and our country and community divided, I feel it is not safe for us to return to school until we can significantly get the virus under control and become united as a community and a country. There are too many variables involved. Our family has followed science from the beginning and will continue to do so. My son does not have special needs, so this doesn’t apply to him, but I would like to add a radical thought. My idea since the beginning was to have all students virtual except for those with special needs students who really require in person instruction,” Jennings said.
Other parents, who wanted students back in the classroom as soon as possible, rallied in front of Groves and the Education and Administration Center on August 11. These parents marched and called for an immediate opening of the school buildings. Most carried signs, some of the signs reading, "Home is not school”, "We demand an action plan", and "Schools are essential". Those who helped plan the rally felt that the BOE had excluded parent and teacher views, so they formed a Facebook group and an action team of mostly parents and local healthcare providers to strategize how to open BPS face to face.
Parent of children in the district, Dana Leischner, who attended the rally, noticed an unhealthy increase in screen time and lack of physical activity her second and third grader faced in a virtual learning mode, which motivated her to homeschool her children until face-to-face schooling resumes.
“We had difficulties, especially because of their young age. I taught high school at Groves for twelve years, and I think that, as the kids get older, it’s a little bit easier to expect them to sit in front of a screen and try their best to communicate with teachers and their classmates. But the little kids’ brains just didn't seem ready to absorb information that way, at least mine were struggling with that. Their attention spans are short and we had lots of frustration when issues popped up frequently. We did virtual for about three weeks, and then I decided to pull them and homeschool them until they started back face-to-face. We loved our teachers and they were, they were so awesome, and I think, though the district is trying their best. But, learning isn’t the same through a screen,” Leischner said.
As an Executive of the Birmingham Education Association (BEA), Scott Warrow listens carefully to all stakeholders in this debate, but said finding common ground as tensions mount proves difficult.
“We have never been through anything like this. The debate to return to in-person learning is dividing our community more than I have ever seen before,” Warrow said. “On the one side we know that face-to-face instruction is important for many of our students and teachers. It's important for many reasons: one is when a teacher engages with the person on a computer it separates that distance to a degree where it's hard to present the curriculum and to understand. On the other hand, I do look at the data regularly and our cases have skyrocketed, in Oakland County and Michigan. We are similar to where we were when we were shut down in terms of the number of cases, and we need to take concerns about safety seriously.”
Warrow added that, throughout the process, as promises and plans changed, teacher morale had never been lower, especially for those teachers who thought they would have an option to teach virtually once the district returned to face to face learning.
“Teachers were encouraged that the board and the district were working with the association to help those teachers that had a high risk of Covid, who themselves have heart conditions or have issues that are preexisting conditions and still want to work, and having them be virtual as their student have that choice to be virtual. Teachers, unfortunately, are not going to be given that choice at the high school and middle school because the board directed the district to not provide any virtual opportunities for teachers,” Warrow said.
Birmingham Board of Education vice president Lori Ajlouney understands that teachers would like the same virtual option that Birmingham families have, but she highlighted the difficulty of scheduling teachers for full time virtual with nearly %70 of families choosing the hybrid option. Ajlouney does agree with Warrow that the community has never been more emotionally and mentally torn apart by an issue.
“There is no doubt about it. We are divided by those who want 100% virtual learning as opposed to those that want 100% face to face learning. We have found that, as a board, while making these decisions back in March, that no matter what decision we chose to make, it is never going to appease the entire community, never, so there is always going to be some dissatisfied part of our population,” Ajlouney said.
Ajlouney sympathizes with the passion that families feel about the health of their children and the fear for their safety, but urges the community to understand that all stakeholders want what is best for children.
“We are all on the same side, the side which is protecting our children and providing a robust standard of excellence for an education for them as we can, and we are on the same side, but some forget that. They are seeing from a very narrow perspective, and that is what creates the anger, the frustration, and I think the hate. There are hundreds, no, more like thousands of hate mail, threats [sent to members of the administration and board] just because people can't wrap their head around what is happening, and it's affecting them so much that they can't step out of that and put it in perspective. As a board member, I see that people also don't understand that I can't make a decision solely based on my two boys. I was elected by my constituents, and I have a judiciary responsibility to make a decision based on the greater good, and that means I have to take everybody's side and everybody's child into consideration,” Aljouney said.
Sophomore Gracen Stein is on the side of caution, and he believes students should not be returning to school until the numbers of COVID-19 positive cases are drastically lower.
“I think everyone wants to go back to school, and I get that, but it’s not the safest option right now. I think that right now we need to think of other people before ourselves. With our teachers, custodians, bus drivers, cooks, and every staff member being an adult it’s too risky to go back currently. We have to remember that high schoolers go to school with adults in the building, which means they have an increased risk of getting COVID-19,” Stein said.
Like all Michigan schools, Birmingham was forced into a virtual setting starting March 13, a decision that was later prolonged into the 2020-2021 school year by the BOE. The BOE prioritized the safety of the community as COVID-19 cases continued to rise in August.
“The numbers of Covid cases just made us realize, as a board, that to put our children and our staff at risk would not be the right decision, so we felt that for the safety of everybody, following the trends, and following all of the metric systems we put together and used, it was made clear that we could not have a face to face starting in august,” Ajlouney said.
When students switched to online school, many struggled with the new style of learning, and Stein described how surreal learning online felt.
“It’s had a big impact on my life because school is obviously online, and it’s been hard to have the motivation to complete school work. It’s interesting because school obviously matters for college and everything now, but it’s hard to think that way because school doesn’t feel real. It almost feels optional,” Stein said.
Birmingham Board of Education Trustee Nicole McKinney hears Stein’s concern about lack of motivation with online learning and voiced her desire for a return to a face-to-face environment, but noted the importance of doing so safely.
“Once cases resume to lower levels, I think the research shows the best option for students is to be in school face-to-face. Students with different learning styles and/or disabilities need access to in-person instruction for better outcomes. However, it is also important that those who are fearful of contracting the virus also have an option to participate in school virtually, from home. There are schools, both public and private, who successfully returned to in-person learning when the Covid cases were lower, so it has been proven it can be done. It is my hope, as a trustee, that we will be able to do the same, when it is safe, without waiting for the perfect scenario of zero cases,” McKinney said. “The pandemic is the most difficult because there are so many competing priorities. We need our economy open so that people can work and make money. In order to do that, parents need children in school so they can work. ”
Warrow underscored that this issue helped everyone appreciate how schools go beyond teaching students to being an integral part of the financial and emotional health of the community.
“Students come in, and parents can work and can manage their households while their children are at school. In all honesty. It’s hard not to recognize that to a degree, public schooling has always been a way, or a community service, to not only educate students but to watch over them. In fact, some of the first foundations of education were providing a safe place for students to be, a safe place for young people to be while their parents are engaged in economic endeavors and so forth. And it's still obviously that way today, especially for students who need a place to be,” Warrow said.
Though a team of educators suggested a hybrid plan that included dedicated virtual teachers and learners in coordination with dedicated face-to-face teachers and learners to provide this safe space, the district went forward with a different, hybrid plan that included on-line students live streaming into the class.
“In the original plan, you would have had the students right in front of you with hands-on activities at least to some degree. Teachers are used to that style of teaching,” Warrow said. “When working with students in person, there are activities, such as experiments, that cannot be fully replicated without being there in person. As a teacher, maybe I can wait for them to come in and do it the next day. But for students who are at home permanently, there are things I would do differently. So teachers are feeling the downside of loss of essential instruction for those students who are all virtual because they aren't going to be involved as much. Teachers also feel the downside of it being demanded upon them to have two different lessons happening simultaneously.”
Aljouney responded to this concern by emphasizing that every classroom has Smartboards at the front of the classroom, and that's where she imagines the teacher will continue doing his or her work. She provided a hypothetical scenario where the hybrid plan could work for both live streaming students at home and in person students.
“You have a webcam or a camera that is focusing on the Smartboard and that can be seen and can be projected to all the kids at home. For the teachers, you have your second monitor where you have a gallery of all your students that are home, “Aljouney said. “For example, let's just say little Jordan wants to raise his hand or ask a question from home. You can see his little profile turn yellow and see that his hand went up. Then the teacher, who almost has to have 360 degree eye view, can see that the child has put their hand up or if the child has put anything into the chat a question or a comment part of the discussion that they want to contribute, and that will be shown on their monitor. The kids that are in hybrid will be in desk clusters, each with about four desks, having only one student in a cluster. These desk clusters will be facing each other so that they won’t be looking at someone’s back but rather look and have discussions from a safe distance.”
Social studies teacher Geoff Wickersham said this type of hybrid learning is an infeasible juggling act that would also prevent students and staff from relating as well as they do on an interactive Zoom call.
“It definitely sounds really hard. It’s just like one more thing that can go wrong. It’s just more tech, more baloney. This is a con of the hybrid plan. There are more bells and whistles and things that have to go right and things that can go wrong. The idea of this plan is that you can do some of those interactions with kids, the personal interactions. You get to see them, a little bit more like normal school,” Wickersham said. “Unfortunately, this is not how it will play out. We’re all going to be in masks. Teachers are going to be standing behind plexiglass. We’re all going to be locked in front of our computers or stuck with headphones.”
Photo by Roni Blank
Students crowd the stands at the Seaholm vs Groves playoff game on November 6, illustrating the difficulty of following COVID 19 state mandates at school sporting events. On this night, fans packed Seaholm’s stadium, not social distancing and intermittently removing masks. As the district debated whether to return to in-person learning during the November 9 Board of Education meeting, trustee Adrienne Young argued that keeping schools closed while allowing students to attend sports sent the wrong message about scholastic priorities and delayed opening schools for face to face learning. “I would like us to revisit our plan that says we follow MHSAA [Michigan Highschool Athletic Association]. Because parents ask, ‘Why am I driving by football practice when we are not in school?’ We need to take this up as a board because sports are super spreaders,” Young said. "We are miscommunicating our priorities to parents. We shut the classroom down If there is super spreading in sports and we can’t have kids back in school. We should change the plan and say we can say if we have school sports, that is in our control. A super spreader event such as sports still happens. Why don’t we change the plan and say we control school sports?” Trustee Nicole McKinney responded, “I would never sign off on that. School is about children. We need an outlet for them competing in sports or they are going to be at home and doing nothing or getting together with friends and sleep overs if they don’t have it.”
Like Wickersham, science teacher Cynthia Sherman, who recently earned her 20-years-of-service commendation, feels the bond she can create with her students is greater in a virtual setting, where students can learn and teachers teach without being covered in masks.
“I can read the body language and make personal connections with my students when I can see their entire face and my students can see mine on a Zoom call. While this is certainly not the same as regular face-to-face interaction, it is better than communicating with students through plexiglass and masks. Instead of increasing personal interaction, hybrid learning could present more obstacles and less actual face to face time,” Sherman said. “Lastly, I do wonder if learning experiences will be equitable in a face to face/livestream method. If we’re live streaming, teachers won't be able to focus on one body of students, but rather have to juggle two. Teachers will multitask more than they have ever done before by trying to include the viewers at home as well as those in the classroom equally.”
To test the pros and cons of the district’s suggested hybrid model, Warrow and BEA president, BPS parent, and teacher Amy Denys-Wagner gathered educators and BOE members to participate in lessons that followed the livestreaming approach. Both teachers and board members who participated in this simulation, especially those in the virtual, live-streaming option, felt frustrated at the inability to have their needs addressed during class.
Denys-Wagner witnessed first hand the challenges with this approach in her own class, and at the BOE meeting on October 10 expressed her dismay at how this type of virtual academy seems to leave out the students at home and overwhelm both students and teachers, leading to an inability to complete even short assignments.
“As a 25-year-elemantry school teacher, I am distraught at what has been happening in the virtual academy. I know everyone is working hard to do what they perceive as right, but today I witnessed firsthand the difficulties that virtual teachers and students take. I took thirteen third graders into a Zoom breakout room to administer a quiz, while their regular classroom teacher kept the other fourteen. Typically in math a teacher has twenty-seven students herself. This very short virtual experience was found to be frustrating and left many loose ends that now have to be finished at a later date. Unfortunately, due to technology issues only fifteen out of the twenty-seven students passed the 5-problem quiz. I'm certain that you can understand how large class sizes exacerbate the problem and leave everyone feeling defeated. Some kind of relief needs to be provided to the Birmingham virtual academy children, so that the teachers can aim for quality and student focused instruction to less students on the screen. As the leader of the Birmingham Education Association I am frustrated,” Denys said. “Decisions are occurring at great connection speed and giving timelines and deadlines that make little sense in the first place. Yesterday afternoon, several board members attended a mock live stream school lesson, and I know that those of you that were there noticed many pitfalls in the experience. I am glad that some of you expressed those pitfalls tonight. In your role as leaders, I sincerely propose that you will put a stop to the middle school livestreaming plan and reconsider the return date for incoming students. Making the date align with the semester date change will allow for thoughtful class arrangements that fit both virtual and face to face students. In the elementary the class sizes are way too high, parents are frustrated, and teachers feel overwhelmed. And these fast paced decisions have led to a lot of angst and anger and unrest.”
This unrest continued at the December 15 BOE meeting as board members debated how to structure the new in person hybrid model and whether the 5th day of school should be another day of live streaming or a day in the week for all students to gather together on a Zoom call.
Remembering her frustration while trying to get a teacher’s attention during the simulation of a hybrid, live streaming model, McKinney voted to keep one day of the week dedicated to all students with equal access to a teacher via Zoom.
“I have gone through the simulation. My concern is that the parents who say that they want all live streaming, who have not experienced it, don’t know what this really is,” McKinney said. “I cannot imagine live streaming for three full days versus having at least one virtual environment with the entire class. Right now we are virtual. Right now I can hear my son interact with his classmates. I can hear him ask his teacher questions and hear the teacher answer. Now I visualize him watching other students interact with the teacher and not have the opportunity to interact or to go into break out rooms and interact with other students. ”
Trustee Jennifer Rass was equally concerned about the virtual students who were now going to be live streaming.
“They are competing for attention when the teacher is teaching in person, so it is not like the Zoom we have now. They have to try to get the teacher’s attention if they need help. They can't stay after class or during asynchronous time. They now don’t have that luxury. This was not a great option for virtual four months ago,” Rass said. “But if we are not even leaving one day for asynchronous time, we are doing a disservice for all our virtual kids. Are we now asking our teachers, already overloaded, if Joe at home has a question, ‘hey teacher can you come in early?’ I just really feel for our virtual students.”
Board President Kim Whitman originally called on the board to vote for three days of live streaming, but, ultimately, the board voted 4-3 to keep one day of the week for all students to be together on a Zoom call.
Aljouney, a long time teacher and BOE member, sympathized with these frustrations with live streaming and equated it with teachers’ need to self-reflect every day and adapt lessons to meet the needs of students, no matter the circumstances.
“Whenever there is anything new, whether it's a new piece of technology or a new piece of curriculum, there is always a learning curve. I can't tell you how many times we will be working through or doing a lesson and my kids will be looking at me with this blank look on there face. Then, we just have to try it again. I think that with new things you have to work out what is effective and kids can relate to and what they can't. There is also the chance that maybe I wasn't teaching it well enough, so I have to self evaluate and pivot myself to try teaching something totally new,” Aljouney said. “It’s part of the learning curve. Yes, this is difficult for teachers and students because it is new, but a teacher is teaching students right in front of him or her, and that's going on in the live stream, so those students at home will be seeing everything that is happening: whether it is a science lab, or if it's a history lesson. Virtual kids are right there, Zooming in, and they can see everything that is going on.”
Warrow, however, read letters from teachers across the county who said that this type of hybrid teaching was not manageable.
“This creates a rather schizophrenic environment if you will, for both the teachers and the students. For example, one of the teachers recently emailed me that was teaching a class at Birmingham Covington School, and he was working with his in-person students, talking about something. He went to shift to the computer to see his at home students, and all ten of them were missing from the screen. He didn't know where they went,” Warrow said.
After the decision to close the dedicated virtual academy and replace it with live streaming, Michigan Covid cases also drastically increased from when Michigan first shut down. New daily cases reached a new high, with a peak of 16,680 new cases on November 27. This led to even more divisions in the district about whether to allow district-sponsored contact sports.
At the November 9 Board of Education meeting, Trustee Adrienne Young argued that keeping schools closed while allowing students to attend sports sent the wrong message about scholastic priorities and delayed opening schools for face to face learning.
“I would like us to revisit our plan that says we follow MHSAA [Michigan High School Athletic Association] because parents ask, ‘Why am I driving by football practices when we are not in school?'. We need to take this up as a board because sports are super spreaders,” Young said. "We are miscommunicating our priorities to parents. We shut the classroom down If there is super spreading in sports, and we can’t have kids back in school. We point the finger at MHSAA, but we should change the plan and say we can say if we have school sports. That is in our control. A super spreader event such as sports still happens. Why don’t we change the plan and say we control school sports?”
McKinney immediately responded to Young.
“I would never sign off on that. School is about children. We need an outlet for them competing in sports or they are going to be at home and doing nothing or getting together with friends and sleep overs if they don’t have it,” McKinney said.
Leischner supports McKinney’s belief that children, no matter the age, need outdoor outlets and that the risk of catching Covid in school buildings is less dangerous than the sedentary and isolated lifestyle she sees virtual learning as promoting.
“There is no situation where there is no risk. That’s just not the world right now during a pandemic. The mental health concerns and the concerns for all of those at-risk groups and all students with services, even just regular families, need their kids to have a choice for face-to-face to learning. I think you can’t get perfect, so you have to shoot for good,” Leischner said. “We are very comfortable with in school learning and hearing that those risks of face to face are actually very minimal despite what you might read in the news."
Mother of two in the Birmingham district, Tiffany Glime, also urged the district for a full return to face to face learning on October 20.
“Scientific studies, The CDC, The world Health organization, and numerous infectious disease doctors say that masks work to prevent the spread of Covid. If you don’t vote to bring back the high school students, I think you owe the community an explanation as to why you don’t believe that masks work, because if you do, then our kids, teachers, and staff should have low risks attending in person school. If masks work at the doctor's office, and they work at the grocery stores, and they work at places of business, and they work at the hair salons, and they work on the airlines, and they work at Country Day and Brother Rice and Cranbrook and Catholic central, we need an explanation as to why they wouldn’t work in Birmingham as well," Glime said. “The parents in our community are losing faith in our wonderful school system. I don’t think that BPS can afford to lose any more students to the local private schools. They’re completely full and have waiting lists.”
Other parents at the BOE October 20 meeting also threatened to move their children to these private schools, such as Country Day or Cranbrook, who opened the school year face to face, if Birmingham did not quickly follow suit.
Many parents who say they want to make this move most likely will not be able to do so. Not only do these private schools require every student to provide at least two negative Covid 19 tests before the student may enroll, a requirement that may ruffle those who want face to face learning, but these schools, as Glime noted, have a long waiting list because they keep class sizes much smaller than public schools. The average class size at Country Day is twelve students.
“Schools like Country Day have those parents that can afford to send their children there and are willing to spend 10 to 20-thousands of dollars. We also know that the student to teacher class ratio is really low. That's the benefit of private schools. If we had every classroom with 12-14 students per class, we could go back to face to face too,” Warrow said. “One thing parents sometimes miss is that private schools have these advantages in terms of those class sizes; moreover, unlike private schools, public schools have been held to the standards that are set by the Michigan government and by Oakland county. We must maintain social distancing from 3-6 feet. And we know that, if we put a class together, especially the kids in high school and within many classrooms, we would not be between 3-6 feet. If there was an outbreak or lets say a student was COVID positive, within a two day time frame, all of the students in that vicinity would now be required to quarantine because they would be within 6 feet. The problem with closing down the classrooms in schools is that it disrupts the whole routine and makes everything even more difficult for all.”
Class sizes at Country Day may be as little as seven. At BPS, a class would not run with such small numbers of students. What makes in-person safety and social distancing so much easier at private schools, also makes it nearly impossible for frustrated a parent to transfer their children to these schools, schools that refuse to increase their class sizes and would require multiple testing for entrance.
Unlike public schools, students at Country Day must pass a rigorous entrance exam to enroll and may be expelled for not following strict Covid 19 protocols, including mask wearing, social distancing. The students also do not share materials. This is easier to enforce in private school as students must buy their own books and materials; whereas, public schools provide books and other shared course materials for students, requiring a few days to sanitize materials before handing them out to the next class of students.
While parents warned they would try to remove their students from BPS and enroll them in nearby private schools if the district did not immediately return to in person learning, BPS parent of two alumni, community member, and 27-year BPS teacher Kathy Westerlin underscored the danger of returning students to face to face learning.
Westerlin read a letter she wrote via video to the November 9 BOE meeting where she voiced her frustration with BPS changing plans from dedicated virtual to hybrid and changing school schedules.
“As you are aware, all public schools districts that touch our BPS district borders have made the decision to move to or remain in a virtual environment in the near future and have communicated this plan to their stakeholders. The BPS board of education’s current lack of decision making is incredibly disrespectful to our BPS stakeholders. Parents don’t know if they need a contingency plan for child care. Students don’t know whether they are returning to school or staying at home. Staff is unable to appropriately plan lessons. And building administrators are left to address parent anger and concern with this indecision. While we all want students back in our classroom, if you choose not to move our schools to a virtual environment, given the data and science that we have in front of us, the BPS board of education will cross a line into negligence and show utter disregard for medical science,” Westerlin said.
Aljouny, who listened intently to Westrlin’s concerns, explained the worst part about making a decision to return to face-to-face learning.
“You’re never going to reduce risk completely. It’s impossible. As a board, what we have been trying to do is to put in safety measures in place, like creating our health advisory board. Our HAB consists of volunteer parents in the medical field, from epidemiology to disease control. These parents are specialists in these areas that have volunteered their time to put together these guidelines and metrics for us to use,” Aljouny said
With this in mind, the BOE voted for a return to middle school and high school at a meeting on December 15. Unless numbers increase beyond BPS metrics for “Red Zone” after the holidays, Middle schools will return on January 11 and high schools on January 19, both using the hybrid model that includes at least 30% students live streaming from home.
Along with concerns about equity for those students who live stream, teachers remain worried about going back to school for their safety, their students’ safety, and the safety of the community, especially during a time when the CDC predicts the highest cases of Covid before vaccines will be available for those at high risk, including educators. Warrow said many teachers weighed their options this year. Some teachers felt stuck between two priorities: their family’s safety and their careers as teachers.
“Some of the teachers may agree to come in, but some teachers may decide that they need to retire, resign, take a leave of absence. If we don't have enough teachers who want to show up to Groves or Seaholm, the district is going to have trouble running an educational program. This is because the supply of teachers has to be there to match the number of students. But with that, we only have a select amount of teachers which limits our ability to go hybrid,” Warrow said. “There aren't teachers waiting in the wing to come to school and teach. We have had a teacher shortage for the last five to seven years and we have over several hundred positions being posted on Oakland schools right now so it's not like it's easy to find a teacher.”
While Sherman is willing to adapt to the changing teaching and learning conditions the district proposes, she does not feel safe coming back to school. She has lost four people in her life due to Covid since March and believes the measures required to keep both staff and students safe would reduce personal connections.
“Right before Thanksgiving, the number of new cases per day and infection/positive test rates were skyrocketing with no end in sight. If I am not comfortable sitting in a room with extended family members for the holidays, I am surely not comfortable sitting in a building with hundreds of families represented until numbers continue to decline,” Sherman said. “I am especially concerned with 50% of spread coming from high school aged students, according to Governor Whitmer at her last press conference. In a virtual setting, I don’t have the heightened anxiety about areas of school that might increase my risks of Covid infection. I don’t concern myself with where I am standing, what I am touching, or what areas I need to disinfect,” Sherman said.
Wickersham is equally fearful about coming back to school during the pandemic and, like Sherman, pointed out how the hybrid system, meant to increase social distancing, would still increase community spread of Covid.
“I think there’s always going to be a fear factor because this is a disease that we are still learning about and things keep changing. I’m not going to feel comfortable until we all have had the chance to vaccinate, cheaply or free,” Wickersham said. “The hybrid mode increases the chances of people getting sick. Anything that’s not virtual is going to increase the chances of kids getting sick. The worst case scenario is that we go full time face to face, where we can’t meet the guidelines of 6 ft apart in a classroom, and social distancing.”
While Wickersham is worried about the spread of the disease in any face to face plan, he acknowledges that the plan will be useful for some, especially parents with younger kids.
“With the hybrid plan, some parents are not going to have to worry too much about childcare. I can’t imagine how hard it is for parents of little ones. That’s one of the reasons why elementary went back first and special-ed went back first. I can’t imagine being a parent and having to sit your 6-year-old in front of a computer for four to five hours.”
Other teachers are eager for students to return. English teacher and Groves Performing Arts Company director John Rutherford hoped to see his students in August and looks forward to their return in January.
“I have made learning in a remote manner work for my class, and I have seen concrete evidence of learning. However, I truly believe that students learn best when they are physically present in the classroom with a teacher. The relationship that develops is much stronger, and I think the interpersonal interactions that exist when we are face-to-face are sorely missing through a Zoom call,” Rutherford said.
Just as the first rounds of vaccines continue to spread to areas of Michigan and beyond from the Pfizer plant in Portage, much remains closed due to the rising number of cases, and herd immunity is at least months away. While the BOE decided on December 15 to return all students to school buildings through hybrid plans, they are also listening to those who want more clear delineation of safety measures that will be in the buildings to prevent a Covid outbreak and understand that another surge in rising cases may force a change in those plans.
“We have tried to take every perspective, every stakeholders perspective into account, and we have tried to balance, we have tried very hard to balance even with these difficult conversations and some of them have been courageous conversations we are still not going to appease everybody and that's unfortunate, it truly is,” Aljouny said. “I think that it is the nature of this pandemic. I think it's the nature of the angst that it creates, and we are doing our very best to do what is best and what is balanced.”
With such a divided district, Aljouny called for something she hopes the entire community will support.
“This is going to be hard. It breaks my heart, and I don’t want anyone to falter through the cracks, but because everything is changing so quickly we must do the best we can. I am praying that we can hire support for teachers,” Aljouny said. “Teachers need the assistance to take off the pressure of having someone in the classroom vs the kids online. Teachers need the support so they can support our kids, and kids, our main priority. We must optimize their learning. Do we have a perfect formula? No. But we must keep adapting to make sure we meet the needs of kids and support teachers.”