Back to School 2021
The public schools and the U-M are fully reopening. What will that look like-and will it be safe?
From the September, 2021 issue
"I am confident that it's going to work."
"On August 30th, you'll walk past the schools and see the sights and hear the sounds of children playing and learning and growing together," predicts Ann Arbor Public Schools superintendent Jeanice Swift. "That will be a tremendous step forward for all of us."
All thirty-one campuses will be in full operation. Staff and contractors must either provide proof of vaccination or weekly negative Covid tests. The district also strongly encourages vaccination for students twelve and older, but no vaccine is authorized yet for younger kids.
"We will have many of our Covid mitigation strategies still in place," Swift says. "We will have our universal masking, our increased and improved ventilation"--the latter thanks to the $1 billion school infrastructure bond voters passed in 2019.
There will be "plexiglass [partitions] in our front offices and high traffic areas," Swift adds, and students will "maintain some distance" when they unmask to eat. For gym and sports, "our students will be fully masked while indoors, and then when they're outdoors, they'll be able to remove their masks."
Aside from the masks, Swift says, "our classrooms will look very much the same as they did before." And despite the Delta variant's surge, "I am confident that it's going to work.
"We have so many more tools and so much more knowledge and experience and awareness this August than we did a year ago," she says. "We have vaccination now; we know the value of masking. We understand how to operate schools and space children out. We have readily available testing, which a year ago was very difficult to get, particularly for young children."
The superintendent also expects almost all students to return. Despite the stresses virtual education placed on children and families, enrollment fell less than 1 percent last year, to 17,832. Most of the decline came in kindergarten and "young fives" preschool, as parents chose to delay their children's enrollment. Swift expects to see most of them
back this year.
"Kinder and preschool will be very, very full," she predicts, "probably one and a half times" the usual number. After accepting fewer "schools of choice" students from other districts, they'll also open that door wider again.
AAPS shut down its International Exchange program entirely last year, and the superintendent says it will stay shut down this year because of "the Delta variant sweeping the globe." But enrollment in STEAM--science, technology, engineering, the arts, and math--"remained very strong."
"We were slightly above 18,000 before Covid," Swift says. "I think enrollment will remain consistent, and by that I mean that we're within a percent or two above where we were before."
Swift says AAPS will continue to offer an all-virtual option, but she doesn't know yet how many families will choose it. "Our parents are still evaluating," she says. "I will know more about that in the next couple of weeks. But at this time it appears as if the majority of our students are planning on a return to full-time in-person learning." And the superintendent couldn't be happier.
School board members and the teachers' union likewise seem happy about how the administration handled the pandemic. "There were a few [Covid cases] when we started going back" last spring, says former teacher and board member Jeff Gaynor. "But it never got to the point of great concern."
"I thought we did about as well as we could have," says board member Susan Baskett. "We did not lose one staff member or one child. And I think that's remarkable given the size and the diversity we have in our community."
"The administration handled the limited reopening this spring as well as could be expected," says board chair Bryan Johnson, adding that Swift "dealt with a lot of backlash really well"--first from parents desperate to get their kids out of the house, then over the summer from elementary-school parents left scrambling by the reduced availability of before- and after-school care. As the Observer went to press, the district had care programs in place at eight elementaries and was offering after-school enrichment classes through Rec&Ed.
Teachers' union president Fred Klein says Swift and her administration "did a pretty good job in emphasizing and prioritizing health and safety of staff and students. When we surveyed our members, it was pretty clear that teachers felt they were doing a really good job with the totally virtual instruction."
"Everybody is so relieved" to be back in full operation, Gaynor says. And eighteen months into the pandemic, Baskett says, "I'm confident in what we have planned for the fall."
Despite the reopening, there's still a ways to go before the schools fully return to normal. How long will that take?
"I don't know," replies Swift. "It has to do with our ability in this community and across the country to get high levels of vaccination in place." In the end, the superintendent says, they'll follow the CDC guidelines.
Vaccines, masks, and "flipped" lectures
The U-M is requiring both vaccination and masks. But after a year of virtual learning, "almost all LSA classes this fall--around 90 percent--will meet in-person for all class sessions," says Tim McKay, the school's associate dean for undergraduate education. Most of the rest "are language classes, which benefit from some online sessions without masks. Just a few percent of our classes will continue to meet fully online."
But while on-campus, in-person instruction will always be at the core of the Michigan experience, McKay says, the pandemic has multiplied the ways it can be experienced. "Most of our classrooms are now equipped for a variety of uses of technology," he says. And in what he describes as an "impossibly large professional development exercise," faculty have learned to use it to teach "in a wider variety of ways."
At its simplest, "lecture capture" records classroom presentations so students can "go back and study again," McKay says. And "if a student needs to miss a class or two, because they're sick, for example, then they are still able to keep up with the class."
Instructors can also prerecord units that students can access "asynchronously," meaning students could do it any time they want. And some are going further and "flipping the class."
"It used to be that you would go to class and listen to the lecture, and then you would go home and do a bunch of homework," McKay explains. "Some instructors are now recording lectures and saying, 'please watch the lecture before you come to class. When you come to class, we will all work together on the material.'"
The new classroom building on 'Washtenaw due to open in January will be ideal for that, McKay says: "It gives us a whole set of new spaces for doing the kind of large-class, active-learning that happens in these flipped classes."
Last year, LSA enrolled 17,715 students. "This year we expect around 18,000," McKay emails. With the Delta variant continuing to impede travel, "the seven percent of international students will be working closely with their academic advisors ... to determine what's best for their circumstances."
"I'm old enough to remember when I thought, 'I'm going to be able to retire before computers' ... but not even close!" says medical school prof Tim Johnson. "It's a huge shift."
Johnson embraced online video for patient consultations--people from Alpena and Traverse City "just love not having to drive to Ann Arbor," he says. It also had some benefits in teaching. His LSA class on women's reproductive health is usually limited to 125 students, "and normally we have a wait list," Johnson says. "Last semester, because it was virtually online, they said, 'how would you like to teach 150 students?' ... and they gave us an extra graduate instructor to cover those students."
Residential College director Catherine Badgley, a paleoecologist, took her class to the arboretum several times last year. One student studying remotely from Memphis, Tennessee, "came along on my smartphone," she says. What started as a temporary experiment "worked so well I'm going to use it when the pandemic is in the rear-view mirror."
But when the weather got cold, the class went into "what is called hybrid mode, which meant half the students could be in the classroom along with me and half were on the screen via Zoom, and we found that difficult ... after a few weeks of that we decided that meeting on Zoom was preferable, because at least everyone could see each other's faces that way, and we didn't have to be wearing masks, and we could--remarkably--have a conversation."
Badgley's RC colleague Susan Rose-grant, who teaches a first-year seminar in narrative journalism, also took her students outside--but while they loved it, she says, she found it "incredibly distracting." Unlike Badgley's, her lessons didn't involve nature or the outdoors, so it didn't help the learning or the teaching.
While instructors are being told not to do so much online this fall, Rosegrant says, "we all need to keep up our skills because we don't know what's going to happen. I hope we don't end up online again, but I don't think that is by any means out of the question."
Badgley says the RC will hold its opening convocation outside this fall, and "we're thinking of holding some of our meetings of faculty and staff on Zoom ... There's still a lot of wariness about the Delta variant, and how contagious it is."
That includes Johnson, the med-school prof. "I'm seventy-one, and given my age and medical issues, I'm not terribly anxious to be in-person," he explains. He's still seeing patients and teaching med students, residents, and fellows, but has decided not to go back into the classroom.
"I taught for twenty-five years and thought that this was a good time to go," he says. "It was a good time for me to pass things off to the next generation of teachers."
Calls & letters, October 2021:
International Exchange, not International Baccalaureate
"I'm not really sure where you got the idea that International Baccalaureate was shutdown last year, or that it remains shutdown this year, but that is completely inaccurate," emailed AAPS spokesman Andrew Cluley after reading our feature on the new school year ("Back to School," September). "In fact the enrollment numbers at Mitchell, Scarlet, and Huron remain strong and our Diploma Programme results last year were strong."
We had misunderstood superintendent Jeanice Swift, who was speaking of the schools' International Exchange program. Our apologies Swift, and to the district's IB families.
Our apologies as well to the parents who pressed the district to reopen its classrooms last year-the same article described them as "desperate to get their kids out of the house."
"This is false and defamatory," Avram Derrow emailed. "We love our children, and we advocate for them without apology."
Derrow wrote that "parents, medical professionals, and students … came together all last year to advocate for children to return to school, in multiple organized efforts. Ann Arbor Reasonable Return raised over $40,000 in a fundraising effort, from hundreds of local families, to assist in our advocacy. Separately, hundreds of local pediatricians and other physicians signed on to multiple letters urging AAPS to reopen, to fulfill their legal obligation to provide education and developmental services to the children in the district. Those pediatricians were 'desperate' indeed, despairing over the profound mental, social, and physical health effects of prolonged school closures on children."
[Originally published in September, 2021.]
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