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Back to School

Ann Arbor Public Schools are planning to bring students back to the classroom in March.

by James Leonard

From the February, 2021 issue

The "in-school hybrid learning option" AAPS announced in mid-'January will offer two days of in-person instruction per week, along with two days of online instruction and one of "asynchronous" virtual learning. The four-step plan calls for the youngest and highest-need kids to return first, followed weekly by older grade-schoolers, and hopefully culminating in the return of middle school and high school students after spring break.

Before the school year began, the district laid out a set of metrics that would have to be achieved before in-class instruction resumed. To even consider reopening, they called for a weekly average of no more than nine new Covid-19 cases per 100,000 residents, or about thirty-three in Washtenaw County.

At the time the new AAPS policy was announced, the county's weekly average was in the 500s.Yet just five days earlier, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services had declared a goal "to have all Michigan school districts offer an in-person learning option for students no later than March 1."

"The value of in-person learning for our kids is immeasurable, and we must do everything we can to help them get a great education safely," Governor Gretchen Whitmer said in a statement. "I strongly encourage districts to provide as much face-to-face learning as possible, and my administration will work closely with them to get it done."

Did the AAPS abandon its own metrics under pressure from the state? "Certainly, there are many factors that weigh into any move forward during this global pandemic," superintendent Jeanice Swift emails. But she notes that the district had previously "signaled" a move toward hybrid instruction. Given "concern about a possible post-holiday increase in COVID cases" [had] "wanted to monitor that through the early days of January." Though still extremely high, the number of new infections then was half of what it was in late November.

More importantly, Swift says, "the vaccine has arrived, and the antigen testing program is coming." The vaccines aren't yet

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approved for children, but they will protect both their vulnerable family members and their teachers.

The highly accurate antigen tests should allow any infections can be identified before they spread. In mid-January, Swift expected them to be available in the next six or so weeks. "It's done right at the school, [and] the results are pretty quickly available."

With vaccines and better tests in hand, "we're going to work during February at our school meetings and community meetings to have all of us, educators and parents and students, understand what school during Covid time will look like," Swift says. But since shared meals may be a prime source of spreading the virus, she knows there will be "a lot of differences on lunches." Instead of cafeteria lines, prepackaged meals will be delivered to classrooms "so that that food is kept protected while it's being served."

Families can choose to keep their kids fully online if they wish. And because no more than half the student body will be in school on a given day, Swift figures they'll be able to achieve physical distancing in existing classrooms, without having to convert gyms and other spaces.

But the pandemic is still raging and anything like full vaccination months away, so Swift doesn't know how many families will choose the new hybrid model. "We built it so that families have full flexibility," she says. "As we move toward mid-February, we'll be asking them, so that we can plan for lunches at school, et cetera, et cetera. But I think that parents are trying to see how things go."

Swift stresses that "we're doing this together as a community. Things change every day in this Covid time, so our commitment is to communicate."

"This is exciting news, and I'm very hopeful," emails Omkar Karthikeyan, a pediatrician who pulled his kids out of the school last year and led a movement with other physicians to get them back to school this year. "This will be such a great development for so many children and families."     (end of article)

[Originally published in February, 2021.]


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