Schools caught in a ‘no win’ reopening situation

August 11, 2020

 

Carly Sheridan can see both sides of the coin. As a middle school math teacher, she yearns to be back in the classroom this September, because she knows it's the best way for her students to learn. But as a parent to three children – ages 12, 9 and 8 – in Bloomfield Hills schools, she's very torn as to what will be the most advantageous, safest and advisable way for them to be educated this school year.

“No matter what, it's going to be different,” she said.

At this point, “as of today,” she said she and her husband James are choosing in-person learning for her children. But, she said, she knows that could change – and there could be a back and forth over the school year, with a few weeks in school, and then a couple weeks at home, depending upon exposure to COVID-19 for her and each of her children, as well as if the number of cases rise in the state, and there is a reversal of phases, back to phase three.

“Being a teacher, I feel okay. But there are so many unanswered questions. What happens if a child in my daughter's class tests positive? If I am pulled out because one of my kids' could be exposed, then that's 10 days – two full school weeks – that my students have to have a sub. There's a sub shortage and the quality of subs have declined,” Sheridan noted, understanding that if a child in her class, or one of her children's class, tests positive for COVID-19, they will likely face a two-week quarantine. She said she is the parent who would have to stay home with her quarantined child. “How often are my students going to have a sub? And sub plans are difficult to prepare. It's a lot of work to do for 10 days. Those are major concerns for me.”

On the other hand, as an experienced educator, she said, “It's difficult to teach math online. When students get online and say, 'Mrs. Sheridan, I'm confused.' I want to be able to show them right then and there, and work out the problem with it. The tools given to me only worked 50 percent of the time – it's something discussed (by districts) but at this point, there's been nothing new or new training for me.”

Further, she pointed out, education's buzzword for the last decade or so has been “collaboration, collaboration, collaboration,” which in a virtual world is impossible, and very difficult to achieve with social distancing.

She explained, “online teaching does not work for every student. Any deficits of this, we're not going to see the effects of this period for a few years. I have 140 students in a normal year – yet I have three children in the prime of their schooling.

“In the spring when we got shut down, we (teachers) knew our students very well. A lot of a student's success is based on their relationship with their teachers. What will it be like if they are meeting their teacher through a Google Meet? How will teachers get to know their students? We have great technology – we can see and hear each other. But can we form the same connections?”


Sheridan voices the conundrum facing not only parents but school districts as well, as we inch closer to the start of a new school year. Many local school districts and private schools are offering parents a choice of in-person learning, some in hybrid forms, and fully virtual options, while other districts have made the determination to begin the first half of the school year by going fully virtual. Large districts which have made that major decision to go virtual, at least to start, for fall 2020, include the Ann Arbor district, Lansing, East Lansing and Okemos districts, Grand Rapids schools, Grosse Pointe, Rochester, Walled Lake and Southfield school districts. There remain others which are still considering that option.

Nationally, California's two largest school districts, Los Angeles and San Diego, will begin the school year full online, as will Oakland, California; Tucson, Nashville; Atlanta, Arlington, Virginia, Miami-Dade, among others across the country.

Last March, all Michigan schools were closed suddenly due to the coronavirus pandemic, a novel virus with no known cure. Initially, schools were closed for three weeks, through their spring breaks, with learning transferred to handouts and computer screens. Then, in early April, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer closed schools for the rest of the academic year, and districts scrambled – some offering Zoom and Google Meet classrooms for students, and others telling parents to figure it out. Attendance was suggested, and grades were discarded. Parents – many who were simultaneously working from home themselves – became teachers of children in multiple grades. Education was often spotty, at best, and for those in areas where internet access was less accessible and devices either not available or shared by several children or by parents as well, education took a back seat. For many kids, the spring of 2020 became a lost school semester. Many parents are also concerned about mental health challenges their children may experience due to worries about the pandemic and isolation they are experiencing.

For the coming school year, state schools will be guided by requirements in MI Safe Schools: Michigan's 2020-21 Return to School Roadmap created by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's COVID-19 Task Force on Education Return to School Advisory Council, published June 30. The statewide plan provides basic guidance to all districts for what is required and strongly recommended safety protocols to keep school communities safe based on the status of the coronavirus. It additionally provided recommendations across mental social-emotional health, instruction and operations within each phase of what the governor calls the MI Safe Start Plan, “to support all schools in Michigan as they continue to their return to school planning work and move towards implementation. These requirements and recommendations are not always easy, but they are necessary,” Whitmer wrote. “We must all continue to put safety first, leverage science, data and public health evidence to inform the decisions we make to serve each and every student in Michigan well.”

The guiding principles of the roadmap are that first and foremost, equitable access to learning is a right for each child. Next, in collaboration with parents, students and teachers, schools will use data and evidence to prioritize resources for each child. It advises teachers and staff to prioritize deep and meaningful relationships to create safe learning environments for each child, and to empower the value, cultivation of relationship, and belonging of student and parent voices in all aspects of learning and emotional support for families.

The roadmap noted that there are four school opening scenarios for fall 2020, revolving around Whitmer's state phases. If the state is in phases one to three, schools cannot open for in-person instruction and instruction must be provided remotely. If Michigan is in phase four, where we currently are in southeastern Michigan, schools can open for in-person instruction with more stringent required safety protocols. Once the state moves to phase five, schools may be open for in-person instruction with moderate required safety protocols. Phase six permits in-person instruction with minimal safety protocols.

It is possible – many experts assert it is likely – that we in Michigan could fluctuate between phase three and four this fall, meaning schools may have to temporarily close to in-person instruction, and then reopen again.

The state roadmap requires facial coverings to always be worn by staff in phase four, other than for meals, as well as by preK-12 students, staff and bus drivers during transportation, in hallways and common areas. They must be worn in classrooms by students in grades 6-12, and should be considered for students in grades K-5. Soap, water and hand sanitizer myst be readily available, and handwashing for at least 20 seconds is required.

Desks must be spaced six feet apart in classrooms, and class sizes should be “kept to a level afforded by necessary spacing requirements.” Teachers should maintain six feet of spacing between themselves and students as much as possible.

The roadmap recommends that if a classroom has windows that can open, they should be open as much possible, weather permitting. “Specials” like art, music and library should be brought to classrooms. Every school should identify and designate a quarantine area and a staff person for students who become ill at school.

Students should eat meals in classrooms or outdoors. “If cafeterias must be used, meal times should be staggered to create seating arrangements with six feet of distance between students.”


The roadmap strongly recommended that before schools reopen for in-person or hybrid instruction they create “hybrid or remote learning programs to… integrate synchronous and asynchronous learning and best practices that promote student engagement, consistency and differentiation. Make expectations clear to school leaders and teachers around hybrid and remote learning instruction that include: best practices for blended or remote learning; grade-level proficiencies; modes of student assessment and feedback; differentiated support for students; the inclusion of social-emotional learning; and guidance around daily instructional time and workload per different grade bands to ensure consistency for students.”

The roadmap also provides recommendations if schools have to close, and then reopen, for in-person instruction this school year, with everything from directions on how to communicate with families to safely bagging devices collected at schools, transporting them to a central location and sanitizing them before conducting maintenance routines to remove malware and mix standard issues. It reminds districts to “ensure that school and community access points and wired network devices are functional.”

While a roadmap, all decisions on opening and closing schools – barring a public health emergency – are local. That is why despite President Donald Trump issuing a decree on July 7, that he was promoting safe and effective learning, and his administration is providing “strong support to ensure K-12 students continue to learn while mitigating the spread of the virus,” almost all funding is from state and local sources, and decisions are primarily made by superintendents and local school boards. Michigan Superintendent of Education Michael Rice, testifying before the state Senate on July 27, said schools shouldn't be forced to reopen with in-person classes this school year and should receive the same funding they did based on last year's enrollments.

Rice was criticizing four bills approved by the Republican-led state House the previous week to require all Michigan school districts to offer the option of in-person classes for students in K-5, despite health and transmission concerns over COVID-19.

“Given the pandemic and the substantial fears of parents and staff, this is not practicable in every district in the state,” Rice said, pointing out several districts are opting to go all-virtual for this school year.


Oakland Schools, the intermediate school district, advises and provides support to all 28 districts in Oakland County. “The executive order was very clear – it's up to local school boards,” said Dr. Michael Yokum, assistant superintendent for educational services, Oakland Schools. “Every district is very different. Right from the beginning we pulled together as a community our continuity of learning plans.”

Yokum said the intermediate school district has shifted resources to pay the full costs for an online assessment system and online curriculum system for districts, and have purchased an online career preparation system, “because their (district) costs are skyrocketing at the same time as the school budgets in Lansing are being cut. The costs to achieve the roadmap will be astronomical, and that is for districts to bear. We don't know where the fiscal year 2021 budget will land.”

Parents and educators are justifiably concerned about continuing in a virtual educational world, the local school administrators are emphasizing spring 2020 and fall 2020 will be two different worlds.

“What we did in March to June – we did a good job, but it wasn't virtual learning, it was crisis education,” said Pat Watson, superintendent, Bloomfield Hills Schools.

Richard Dempsey, new head of school at Detroit Country Day Schools, concurs with Watson's assessment. “We all have crisis plans – but no one had pandemic plans.”

“It wasn't even a mindset for teachers,” Watson said. “Parents have to remember when the governor closed down, we couldn't do much. We couldn't punish anyone if they didn't attend or didn't do their work. Expectations now will be much different. Attendance will be taken and grades will be given. It will be more synchronistic teaching. It will more resemble a typical day.”

 “School 2020 is going to be radically different than school 2019. No educator, administrator or parent has a model, and there is no one model that will work for all schools,” said Roland Coloma, professor and assistant dean, Division of Teacher Education, Wayne State University. “The lack of universal internet access, for us to implement a fully online teaching and learning format, is one issue, as is full speed broadband. If they're using Zoom or Google classroom with 20 to 25 students – that's a lot of internet and broadband. We will also need to insure that every family will have enough computers, tablets, devices, as well as for parents or caregivers. We are also assuming that these homes will have an adult present who can supervise  these children, and are not working outside the home.”

Bloomfield Hills Schools will offer two options for families – a full five-day a week in-person educational option, and a virtual academy they are calling Bloomfield Virtual. Following the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics, in-person classes will have desks place three to six feet apart when feasible.

 

Students in K-5 will wear masks at arrival and dismissal and in common areas, and teachers will wear masks all day. Students in grades 6-12 will wear masks all day, as will their teachers. Hand washing with soap and water will be reinforced with scheduled washing times. Hand sanitizer will be readily available to all students. Frequently touched areas will be disinfected every four hours, and student desks will be disinfected after every change in class. There will be a quarantine area designated in every school in case a student becomes ill. And the days of school-wide assemblies are over – indoor assemblies that bring students together with more than one classroom are prohibited.

As for daily temperature checks, Shira Good, communications and service standards for the district, said they are still awaiting guidance from the Oakland County Health Department, which sets the health standards county schools will have to follow. “Once we have that, we will know if that's a part of our arrival process,” Good said.

All students will have to wear masks on busses, and must use hand sanitizer as they get on the bus, and busses will be disinfected between each route, with added bus runs.

Family members and other guests will not be allowed in any school building other than for extenuating circumstances.

“For K-5, the elementary level, we're trying to build like a 'one-room' school house,” Watson said. He said what that will mean is “we're with that same cohort all day long. If they have recess – and they will have recess, kids need recess – they'll stay at one part of the playground, separate from other classes.”

Instead of classrooms of students coming to specialists, such as art, music and media, specialists will come to classrooms, or the classroom teacher will teach the subject.

“That way it will be one-to-one, in the 'one-room schoolhouse' idea,” Watson said. “We will be spacing kids as best as possible. Where we can, we will social distance.”

For older students, in middle and high school, Watson said they are looking at the possibility of renting tents for putting up outdoors for fall and spring. “For PE, journaling, English classes, depending upon the weather,” he said. “That gets them outside. We're also looking at reusing spaces differently.”

Having surveyed families, and knowing that not all families are comfortable returning to school in-person, the district created a virtual option they said is light years beyond where they were last spring. “Bloomfield Virtual is an option for those who wish to continue to learn with their peers and Bloomfield Hills Schools teachers, yet remain fully at home,” Watson said.


Bloomfield Virtual is an online K-12 school which is free for district residents – the state per pupil educational dollars apply for registered virtual students no differently than for those who attend school in-person. There are some limited tuition seats available as well. The district said it will open simultaneously in the fall for families who want to have their child or children spend a semester or the full school year learning from home. Families must choose either one semester or the full school year by August 18.

“Classes will be taught be highly-skilled, thoughtful and caring Bloomfield Hills Schools teachers utilizing the same academic standards and assessment goals,” Watson said. “Students maintain relationships with peers and teachers while learning fully from home, and students and families will have access to class resources, progress and grades.”

He said the goal is for students and families to enjoy the same rigorous and engaging teaching and learning they expect from the district. Students will receive a mix of live and prerecorded instruction.

The district will provide every student with a device – an iPad for kindergarten and first graders; and a Chromebook for second graders through 12th graders – upon enrollment and completion of their technology agreement. Enrolled students will be able to participate in extracurricular activities outside the traditional school day, including sports, clubs and student organizations.

Their website does caution that students in the elementary grades will need an adult or older sibling for support for initial virtual navigation and continual time management support.


Watson said he anticipates offering some of the district's unique assets, such as the E.L. Johnson Nature Center and the Bowers School Farm, for both those attending school and those attending virtual. “We can say, 'Everyone meet at the nature center at 9 with masks for outdoor education,'” he said.

In late July, Watson said he anticipated – although acknowledged it was a guess – approximately 10 percent of district families would sign up for Virtual Bloomfield.

Birmingham Public Schools on July 28 unveiled its plans for the 2020-21 school year at a study session for the board of education, which still needs to vote on it.

“We have been closely monitoring recommendations from the state of Michigan, CDC, the county and across the world,” superintendent Mark Dziatczak said. “We spoke with about 150 people just in the last week alone. The state of Michigan roadmap provided us with guidelines.

“First and foremost, we wanted to maintain the safest community for everyone in our learning communities,” he said in presenting the district's options, which includes a virtual option and a hybrid option of a half-day mode where students will attend every day for a half-day, which Dziatczak noted not a lot of districts are coming out with. Other hybrid models include an A-day, B-day option, which they discarded. Birmingham is recommending this option, he said, after parent surveys and feedback from focus groups because it permits limited in-person instruction everyday while maximizing social distancing.

“It increases the social/emotional connection and increased in-person learning compared to the every other day hybrid model,” he said.

It is not without drawbacks, he noted, such as instructional time is limited to half the time; it is complicated, for teachers, administrators, parents and students; it increases child care issues for families; and some weeks, he said, only have two secondary class touch points, meaning some middle and high school classes will only only meet twice in a week due to scheduling.

Masks will have to be worn by all teachers and administrators and students in grades 6-12. Temperatures will not be taken at school. Instead, the district is relying on self-reporting, with staff and students required to fill out a form each day that reports their symptoms.

Bussing plans for the district were not yet released, but routes will need to be increased in order to accommodate the half-day options.

Dziatczak said the virtual option will employ Birmingham Public School teachers whenever possible, but always for core class. “In specialized classes (like art, language), we may have to go through a third party, like Michigan Virtual,” he said.

The virtual option will be taught mostly by live Zoom instruction, but there would also be some taped instruction. Families with an individualized education plan (IEP) will be able to be accommodated with support, he said, as will those students needing reading support, English as a Second Language (ESL), and other appropriate accommodations and support.  

“We have two standards that are consistent with graduation standards, as well as meeting or exceeding the state of Michigan standards,” Dziatczak said. “Virtual is still part of our curriculum. It must be aligned with our standards and our curriculum. Assessments and grading will be done like traditional education.

“Virtual is similar to if we have to go remote – if we go to phase three,” he said. “Virtual would stay the same for those students. Remote will look similar but teachers will be the teachers for those families who sign up for either virtual or half-day instruction.”

As of July 28, 948 families out of 5,000 BPS families have elected into the Virtual Academy for at least one semester. He could not say exactly how many students that was. Families in the Birmingham School District had until August 5 to decide between the Virtual Academy and half-day in-person instruction.

An unspoken concern for districts is whether – and how many – teachers will return this fall to instruct students in person, especially as 30 percent of the teachers in the United States are over 50 – and about 16 percent of the total deaths from COVID-19 in the US are people between the ages of 45-65.  Birmingham Schools spokesperson Anne Cron said the district does not have anything official yet; there were only five retirements in the spring, a number consistent with most school years.

“Our hope with our Virtual Academy is that we capture some of those teachers who can't return to the classroom (because of health concerns) or don't want to,” Cron said.

Michigan Education Association (MEA) spokesperson David Crim said he believes school districts will have a difficult time staffing their schools for in-person instruction this fall.

“The first thing we say is – it is not smart to reopen schools until the public health experts say so – and they have not said it is,” Crim said. “It must be a joint decision between public health experts and educators, and educators must be at the table.”

Crim said there are 20,000-plus members of MEA across the state, of which all but Detroit's district in the metro area belong, and about 15,000 members responded to a survey about returning.

“One-third said they were seriously considering retiring or leaving the profession altogether,” he said. “We had a severe teacher shortage before the pandemic. We had a 50 to 60 percent decline in the last decade in our colleges of education.

“Our teachers are feeling scared and angry, because they feel Trump and (national secretary of education Betsy) DeVos are willing to risk their lives without their input.”

“Teaching and learning are such a fundamentally social experience. Teachers derive such pleasure from those light bulb moments. There is something so magical about being in the classroom together that cannot be replicated in an online format – but how do you do it safely?” asked Roland Coloma, professor and assistant dean, Wayne State University Division of Education.

“Many teachers have children at home, so they're also trying to take care of their own children while they're taking care of their classroom children,” said Wayne Coloma. “Teachers are the unheralded heroes. We have forgotten the work teachers do in our push to open schools. We're talking about not just their livelihoods, but their lives.

“Anecdotally, there are definitely discussions about is this worth it?” he said.
Substitute teachers are another concern, as there was a severe substitute shortage prior to the pandemic. This year, districts are encountering another issue, as substitutes can be retired teachers or other individuals who may not be willing to potentially be exposed. They also travel from building to building, district to district.

“We know it will be a challenge just as it has been in previous years,” Cron said.

“I absolutely think there's going to be a substitute shortage,” said Watson of Bloomfield Hills Schools. “We're developing a screening process. So many are retired and have underlying health issues. Many are not going to return – it isn't safe for them to return.”

“The sub shortage is critical,” Crim noted. “But when you pay them $85 or $90 to have them work a six-hour day – they can go to McDonald's.”

Crim said school cannot successfully reopen without funding for personal protective equipment – PPEs, just like medical personnel. He noted about $175 billion is included in the Heroes Act (Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act), passed by the House of Representatives in May, and awaiting Senate approval.

“That funding, along with public health guidance, along with our educators being at the table, are the three things needed before schools are able to reopen,” he said. “Administrators want to do the right thing – they just don't have the money.”

If a student or a teacher becomes ill during the school year, local public and private schools turn to the Oakland County Health Division for guidance, which is also operating under the governor's back to school roadmap, said Shane Frederick Bies, administrator of public health.

“Right now, our community should be so motivated to keep the transmissions down so we do not backslide to phase three,” Bies said. “In reality, our metrics have been trending in the wrong direction. Where we are right now is where we were at the end of March, right before the numbers skyrocketed. The numbers we're seeing in Oakland County and the region, it's time to change our behavior so it's safe enough to have in-person education.”

At this point, the Bies said they have not determined what level of positive testing rate could be a safe level for returning to school.

Bies said they are working with all county schools and superintendents on screening procedures and what would happen if – or more likely, when – a case of coronavirus is identified in a classroom. “Every district has to have plans submitted by August 15 to the state,” he said.

“There's no such thing as zero risk. It's with us,” said Joe Eisenberg, professor and chairman of epidemiology, University of Michigan School of Public Health. In addition to advising students and faculty to wear masks while indoors, he is concerned about ventilation systems in schools, particularly older buildings, and recommends teaching outdoors when the weather is cooperative, and opening windows when possible.

The Oakland County Health Department currently has a full time public health nurse working with Oakland Schools.

“We recently allocated $2 million worth of Care funding to hire upwards of 70 school nurses to assist with school openings and services through the end of December, when the funding ends,” Bies said. “They're going to be official Oakland County employees assigned to school districts, who can deploy them as they need them.”

Local private schools are also following the governor's roadmap and public health directives.

Richard Dempsey, who began his new stint as Head of Schools for Detroit Country Day Schools in July, worked with parents, educators, staff and other stakeholders ahead of arriving to plans for the school year.

“We were guided by a certain set of principles above and beyond the health and safety of those impacted by COVID-19,” he said. “About 1,700 people walk through our doors each day, and we have to offer the highest quality education for them – to also make sure to be mindful of the well being of all members of our community. They've experienced a sense of loss – including the loss of school, the loss of athletics, some who didn't get to go to prom. As one door is closing, we cannot forget about last year. We want to provide support for students, and for their trauma, whether through advisories to express themselves, through professional development for faculty. We educate the whole child as a community-driven school.”
Country Day will offer both in-person and virtual options, called Family Selected Remote Learning student participation, for those students who have health concerns, live with family members who have health concerns, and/or are unable to return to their campus this fall. The remote option will permit students to experience the school's academic and extracurricular programs from home and will still permit participation of in-person select athletic, art and non-athletic programs, some of which will be accessed remotely. It is designed to parallel the in-person curriculum, and will include live virtual classes when appropriate. The school anticipates having Zoom advisory and homeroom meetings for peer connections.

Dempsey said their already small classes are being reduced further, notably at their lower school. The middle school has retractable walls allowing for more flexibility.

He said the pandemic has allowed them to think beyond the COVID situation and consider reimagining the way they provide the educational experience.

“How should we structure and restructure schools? As school leaders, this is a moment to think of the longer view, to do a 360 – to do a deep dive about everything,” Dempsey said. “COVID really sparked these conversations for schools about how they're doing things, and why – to take not just the short view, but the long view as well. Every school has to pivot. We're a school deep in tradition, but we understand the necessity of schools to adapt to the needs and requirements of students. We need to equip them for the world and prepare them.

“It needs to be student-centered, and it needs to be real world project-based learning with lifelong skills, using collaboration, critical thinking, grit and realism. Add diversity education and wellness. We are changing how we educate our kids,” he said.
 
Cranbrook Schools, with both day and boarding students, will also offer both in-person and virtual options for the 2020-2021 school year.
Director of Schools, and newly-named President of Cranbrook Education Community Aimeclaire Roche said, “Our foremost goal at this time is to ensure the health and well-being of our Schools community… We aim to preserve the richness of the Cranbrook educational experience at all levels. The COVID-related adjustments we will make this coming year allow us to meet that goal, and simultaneously to mitigate health and safety risks of the COVID-19 virus.”

Their approach, she said, will place emphasis on health and hygiene practices which will include proactive screening, facial coverings, hand hygiene and cleaning/disinfection. To allow for physical distancing in classrooms and school facilities, density of classes and gatherings will be reduced, and cohorts or groups of students who share the day's activities will stay together, in order to reduce the possible spread of illness and allow for more expedient contact tracing.

“Such distance in no way dictates how loving and emotionally invested we can be,” Roche said.

Cranbrook will offer online daily in-person instruction – called Access CK, for students who are absent from school for short or extended periods of time.

CK Online 2.0 “is a prudent contingency plan, should we experience a local resurgence of COVID-19 and find that a particular division of the entire schools facility must close for a period of time,” Roche said. “In that case, we will facilitate a seamless transition to schools-wide, division-wide global distance learning.”

For boarders, those who live on campus, which Cranbrook said is a “cornerstone to our identity and a point of institutional pride,” they have made contingencies for both domestic and international students. Students who cannot return to campus will utilize Access CK to start the school year. For the first month of the school year, students will remain on campus only, other than for essential travel and medical reasons, and the school is working to “support the social and emotional needs of our students in this environment.”

If schools are forced to close for in-person instruction, dormitories will remain open for boarders who are unable to return home.

Aside from all the planning for the coming school year by local schools, which could be rendered moot if an executive order comes down just prior to opening decreeing an all-virtual school year for fall 2020, Lauren Mangus, PhD, assistant professor for educational psychology at Wayne State University, offers a sobering consideration faced by all educators this year: “We're trying to cram education into a crisis. This is an ongoing tornado. This virus is not detectable to the naked eye. When students are stressed, it can manifest in different ways and can impede learning. School is important, but it is very difficult when students are stressed.”

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