Why district decision to end hybrid for full face-to-face learning creates backlash from community

Theresa Fabien

Robert Hart, an ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) teacher at Seaholm High School contracted COVID-19 from a student in January. During this time, BPS was following all social distancing protocols set in place by Governor Whitmer and the CDC. Unfortunately due to the tenacity of COVID-19, Hart still contracted the virus despite social distancing and masks.

“I was infected by one of my students last week on Tuesday, January 26 which shut my whole class down. Unfortunately I tested positive on Saturday, January 30 and for the next week and a half my class had to be virtual. I think that pushing too fast and too quickly back into in-person is going to have devastating effects, not only on the teachers but also on the students. As you can see in my classroom, I’ve had two students test positive and one staff member. However, we’ve only got six students and four staff members in there so when one person goes down it has a domino effect,” Hart said.

Hart told this story at the February 2, Birmingham Public Schools (BPS) Board of Education (BOE) virtual public comment section of a study because he knew the BOE would be voting on a resolution to send K-5 grade students back to school full time.

After a number of BPS staff members and parents urged the board to allow BPS to remain in a hybrid setting, the BOE voted five-to-two on an amended resolution to not only return younger students but all students, including high school students, to full, face-to face learning starting March 17.

Many community members believe the decision was made hastily and without the consultation of BPS staff members, students, or the community.

English teacher at Groves High School and wife of Scott Warrow, Susan Warrow was just one of the twenty seven respondents who argued against the full face-to-face return on March 17.

“In the classroom we pause and think intentionally about lessons, activities, and student needs and we ask that the board not rush hastily into schedule changes which will upend our students lives again. Let the board consult with us,” Susan Warrow said.

This board meeting lasted over two and a half hours with twenty seven teachers and other staff members along with parents begging the BOE to continue with the hybrid model rather than go full face to face without following the guidelines for social distancing. These messages included many nervous parents and teachers, terrified of the repercussions of a full face-to-face return.

Executive director of the Birmingham Education Association (BEA) and former social studies teacher of twenty-three years, Scott Warrow sent in one of the first and longest video responses to the BOE. During his speech, Warrow discussed the problematic nature of a full in-person return. By making this decision, the BOE violated a letter of agreement with the BEA on February 5. The letter of agreement states: “The Association and District shall mutually agree to daily schedules and calendars of both the virtual and hybrid models in compliance with the parameters of the current CBA. Any changes to daily schedules, reporting times, and/or yearly calendar shall be negotiated between the two parties.”

Since the BOE’s decision was in violation of this contract, two grievances have been filed by union leadership asking for a reconsideration of the plan to return to face to face learning. If a grievance does not result in mutual communication, the next step often is arbitration. Past that may include legal action against the district filed with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission and adjudicated by a third party arbitrator. This process ends with a binding legal decision.

“It is unfortunate that despite the productive and positive working relationships teachers and the board have built up over the years, that the board will go back on a solemn promise to teachers and it’s legal commitment to the staff of this district. Let me make clear for all of those in communities, teachers are not and never have been against children returning face-to-face. We only wish to do so in an educational sound and safe way as possible,” Scott Warrow said.

Many teachers are worried about the consequences of a full face-to-face return and what that will mean for the emotional well-being of their students.

“We ask for empathy on behalf of marginalized students who will once again feel left out of schedule when routines change again. We ask for flexibility on behalf of students who are already expected to adapt more than ever, as are their teachers, parapros, secretaries, administrators, and building staff are and to not only speak about giving grace but also to live that grace,” Susan Warrow said.

During the study session many parents raised their concerns about the consistency of another change to a school schedule.

Monica Hawes, parent of a daughter at Peirce Elementary, provided her insight to the board members on February 2. Monica was one of ten parents to share her opinion with the board via video message.

“Birmingham Virtual Academy (BVA) has given our family consistency and continuity in the teaching staff and full time daily instruction with a home room teacher. To change this with only three months remaining in the year I believe it would set children back. Please allow both the BVA and the hybrid, which seem to be working seamlessly, to remain as is to limit what has already been a pretty tough school year. Let us work together to come up with a solid plan for this fall,” Hawes said.

Some BPS parents are concerned for their children because the ever-changing learning environment has caused instability within staffing. Many students have been given new teachers. Some K-5 students have gone through three or four teacher changes this year.

Trustee Adrienne Young was one of the two board members who voted against a return to full face-to-face. She had prepared a speech ahead of time to explain her “no” vote, a speech that mirrored many of the concerns from teachers and community members. Young made clear that she believes the health risks of in-person learning greatly outweigh the benefits.

“Put simply, we’re making a choice to increase risk at a time where new, more contagious strains of the virus are shutting down entire departments and campuses,” Young said.

Young also pointed out the emotional toll on first and second graders who would see their fourth teacher change this calendar year.

“This point cannot be stressed enough. If we go back to school full time face-to-face, it is extremely likely your child will experience a teacher change. Research shows that it takes teachers weeks to establish classroom dynamics and management. How does that happen when the only consistency is change? What about the students who just started to form a sense of trust and understanding with their teacher and now a brand new face?” Young said.

Assistant Superintendent for Student Learning and Inclusion, Embekka Roberson, former principal of Groves High School, does much of the logistical planning when it comes to the return of school. Young asked Roberson if maintaining at least three-feet of social distancing would be possible in all classrooms throughout district.

“We will not be able to hire for all of those [new] classes nor is it in the best interest for students to have a different teacher. If at all possible, we want to keep them [students K-5] with their homeroom teachers, but in doing that, it would mean there is going to be less than three-feet of distancing,” Roberson said.

The CDC recommendations in place during the February 2 board meeting stated that three-feet social distancing should be mandated to the return of school. Within a week, the CDC revised their recommendation to at least six-feet of distance between students for a safe and healthy return back to school. Similarly, Governor Whitmer laid out her roadmap to reopening schools: social distancing, cohorts, and a virtual learning option.

Although the CDC recommended a minimum of three-feet social distancing, board member Nicole McKinney consulted with the BOE attorney from Clark and Hill about the legal implications of sending students back to school without providing this social distancing protocol.

“As Dr Heitsch indicated, the CDC has found in schools that less than six-feet of distancing is safe for students,” the Clark Hill attorney said.

“I was asking about three-feet of social distancing,” McKinney said.

“The CDC has found that three-feet can still be safe,” the attorney said,

“But in the event we are not able to provide three-feet, what does that mean?" McKinney asked.

“There is no legal impediment to doing it,” the Clark and Hill attorney said.

McKinney explained her passion for returning because she was excited to see the community open up and believe the move was in line with government guidelines.

“We have guidance from the CDC, our own federal government who has a plan to open schools within one-hundred days, our own state governor who has recommended in-person instruction by March 1. We've demonstrated success in the hybrid model for our elementary students previously. We have survey results that indicate that parents want their children to be in-person,” McKinney said.

The survey McKinney referred shows 56% of parents for students K-to-5 prefer a full face-to-face return. This survey did not take into account 6-12 graders.

Mckinney and some of her fellow board members have seen improvements in their children’s mood and behavior. They attribute this to the new hybrid system that allows students to be in-person and believe that much more time spent in a classroom setting will improve students' mental well-being.

“I have a son who is currently attending school in-person, and I have seen the difference it has made in such a short period of time. I enjoy hearing back from other families with the same sentiments that their children are glad to be back in school,” McKinney said.

McKinney said data also suggested a decrease in GPA with students who are only virtually attending school. McKinney utilized this as an argument for why students should return to a full in-person learning schedule.

Treasurer of the BOE Amy Hochkammer is tasked with the job of understanding and budgeting BPS. The financial stress that comes with losing donations, students, and community members in BPS led Hochkammer to push for the full face-to-face return.

“We have lost students and we continue to lose them. I've had five families reach out to me in the last ten days to tell me that they are either visiting or have already put deposits down on private schools. As much as it pains me to say it, I have to think ahead to the next two to three years of this district and what a loss of six hundred students means to us financially and emotionally,” Hochkammer said.

An emergency board meeting was called four days later after the BOE’s original decision to pursue a full face-to-face return. The February 2 decision prompted a large public response, decrying board members for ignoring staff and community concerns. Stacey Millichamp, parent of three children in BPS, was one of these respondents.

“As a BPS parent I want to go on record to say, teachers thank you so much for everything you have done for the past year, your hard work, dedication, kindness, perseverance, creativity, and love have been abundantly felt in everything you have done for our children and community. Watching the school board meeting February 2 board meeting, I was completely floored at how your concerns seem to be dismissed. You are valued in this community. You are what make our schools consistently ranked the top in the nation. I am sorry you were not consulted before decisions were made about your future. I’m angry at the position you have been put in. I am extremely disappointed at our school board,” Millichamp said. “Teachers, I want you to know, I hear you. I see you. I appreciate you, and I support you. I know many families in our communities support you as well. Please let us know how we can help you.”

Other respondents voiced concern for both the safety of students with the full time face-to-face resolution and for retention of staff members.

Amrita Singh, mother of two children in BPS, addressed the board directly saying they were decreasing both safety and equity in a last minute decision to return face to face without guaranteed social distancing.

“Board of Education and central leadership: When you voted to go back full time and minimize safety protocols, you shifted the equity balance in our district. Many families who would like to begin hybrid and those currently in hybrid now say they no longer feel safe doing so and will be switching to all virtual. You essentially removed the opportunity for us to have any face to face learning with safe, mitigation practices. Additionally, while you say every effort will be made to keep homeroom teachers, the recent past showed us you are not able to do so, and the majority of kids did have a teacher change. Your recent survey asked to rank the importance of safety measures, but safety measures are cumulative and meant to be stacked to be most effective. By removing six-feet distancing, you have also made other safety measures less effective. At the beginning of the pandemic, the board and central leadership stated that we were going above and beyond CDC recommended protocols. Why is now okay to go below the CDC’s recommended protocols,” Singh said. “The lack of clarity in the survey about decreasing social distancing to less than three-feet has resulted in a false picture of what the majority of stakeholders want. I urge you to resurvey stakeholders, teachers and staff with a transparent line of questioning. Birmingham Public Schools can no longer provide a minimum standard? Although the CDC director stated that vaccinating all teachers prior to school return is not necessary, she also indicated that this was only true with strict use of mitigation strategies. This includes mask wearing, frequent and rapid testing, hand washing, and six-feet of social distancing. She did not say to pick and choose which strategy you would like to use. Asking your educators to teach in person without the assurance of a vaccine but also without these basic safety guidelines is not acceptable. Also not acceptable is haphazardly adding middle and high school to the resolution and voting on it before surveying the teachers and families impacted by that decision. This has conveyed the message to our educators that they are inconsequential and to our families that their opinions simply do not matter.”

BPS parent Nicole Spencer echoed these sentiments.

“The rushed approval to return to school, face to face full time K-5 and the 11th hour amendment to include 6-12 is very disappointing. The survey indicated that the majority of teachers at the elementary do not feel comfortable returning full time face-to-face. If teachers are forced to return full time face to face without critical mitigation strategies, I am concerned that many quality teachers will take a leave, retire, or resign,” Spencer said. “Educators are working tirelessly at the front lines and they deserve a seat at the table, to be listened to and respected. Their impassioned pleas to allow the BVA and hybrid learning to continue as status quo seemed to be ignored. They strongly urged you to take into consideration their professional, knowledgeable opinion and allow BVA and hybrid to continue respectively. Staffing changes affect everyone. My son, who is in the second grade in the Birmingham Virtual Academy, could end up with his fourth teacher this year. Think about not only what you are asking teachers to do professionally but what you are asking the children to adjust to. Let children finish out the year as is. Start new next year. BPS Teachers and staff, thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

The return to a full in-person schedule will happen on March 17 and will still allow a virtual option. The high school schedule allows Wednesday to remain virtual and open campus lunch will be available for juniors and seniors. Plexiglass shields will be installed by March 18 because less than three-feet social distance is not guaranteed but is promised during lunch. The Clear to Go app will be used every morning along with temperature monitoring in first hour.


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