By Crystal Hayduk
Although the Chelsea School District (CSD) Board of Education had previously approved the Extended COVID-19 Learning (ECOL) plan to begin four days of in-person instruction with one virtual day a week on April 19, the recent surge in COVID-19 cases is a reminder that pandemic life is anything but controlled.
As a result, the board was asked at their meeting on April 12 to approve delaying an increase in face-to-face (F2F) learning until April 26. (See story related to original decision here: https://chelseaupdate.com/chelsea-school-district-increasing-in-person-learning-on-april-19/.)
During the opportunity for public input, the board heard from seven parents (some who have spoken at previous meetings) regarding the latest ECOL plan, which was posted April 9 on the school board page of the district’s website.
Six parents expressed frustration with having the district’s youngest students learning virtually part of the week. Some of the concerns regarded academics, emotional well-being, lack of motivation and focus, lack of teacher supervision, and inconsistent messaging from the district about schedules. Several parents implored Superintendent Julie Helber and board members to “stick to the plan” for a full return of F2F instruction on April 19.
However, Dr. Tom Curran, a parent who has previously addressed the board advocating for F2F instruction for elementary students, said the increase in COVID-19 variants has placed the district in a different position now.
“Today the CDC director called for the state of MI to enter a lockdown and I think the reality is that, regardless of what the board chooses, the future educational options for our students are largely going to be out of our hands.” He encouraged the board to focus on enhancing plans for the future.
The school board discussed and approved two motions following lengthy discussion:
Give the superintendent authority to modify the ECOL plan as needed based on health and safety concerns. (Passed five to two, with no votes from Trustees Tammy Lehman and Keri Poulter.)
Approve the updated Reconfirmation Extended COVID-19 Learning Plan for April (hybrid and virtual through April 23; F2F beginning April 26 five days a week, with ½ day on Friday; 100% virtual option available). (Passed six to one, with the no vote from Lehman.)
Helber and her team assess the COVID-19 situation daily and meet with the Washtenaw County Health Department twice a week. When the board passed the April ECOL plan on March 22, there was no indication the number of cases would be rising so dramatically now.
Helber said her concern in bringing students back to school full time before it is safe to do so will ultimately push the district back into remote learning.
“All of us come to work every day with our fingers crossed that we’re not going to see an explosion of cases, or we’re not going to see a student or…staff getting really, really sick from COVID-19,” she said. “Having this flexibility allows us to make decisions with all of the information we have without having to wait for a board meeting every two weeks.”
Lehman and Trustee Jason Eyster said it appears some parents want the choice of having their children in school full time, even if it’s only a week before conditions require pulling back to virtual, which Eyster called “patchwork.”
Trustee Shawn Quilter said reducing the number of difficult transitions is appealing. “I would rather know that we’re following the guidance that’s going to bring our total community health to where it needs to be even if it’s at the expense of having to do more virtual,” he said, adding that he has young children at home and is eager for the pandemic to end.
Trustee Eric Wilkinson said he’s concerned about how late plan details are communicated. Helber agreed it is frustrating, but explained that circumstances change rapidly in a pandemic, the district gets last-minute directives from a variety of entities, and must distribute the information to both the board and the community. She said although it is not timely or desirable, it has been “an absolutely exhausting year for us to keep on top of the constant changes….”
Trustee Laura Bush, who is a nurse, said COVID-19 numbers are “spiking” and “worrisome.” She said the superintendent and administrative staff have the information, and Dr. Helber should have the authority to make decisions based on changing conditions.
Helber presented specific COVID-19 data in a slide show. In summary, Washtenaw County is at risk level E, the highest risk category. Paired with the building and district spread indicators, remote instruction should be considered.
Among the factors of concern are a significant increase in cases among children in the 0-17 age group, an increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations, and the rapid rise in cases based on data captures on April 5 and April 12.
Helber said parents made student commitment decisions by March 23 based on data points that were at a much lower level than they are currently. She has received many emails from parents who wanted their children to return to F2F instruction who now request the district wait until it is safer. If the district moves forward, some families will back out, resulting in increased staffing challenges to cover the changes.
The district chose not to follow Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s April 9 recommendation for high schools to return to remote and pause youth sports for two weeks because the current hybrid model is working reasonably well (despite a three- to four-fold increase in student cases), student athletes are being tested weekly, spring sports are outdoors, and the district has a policy of team quarantines in the event of positive test results. Helber said the district can choose to pause at any time if conditions warrant, but it isn’t necessary right now.
The administrative team will reassess the plan each Wednesday, beginning April 21. When case and rate trends decline sufficiently according to guidance from the CDC, MDHHS, and the county, the district will be able to increase in-person instruction.
Board President Kristin van Reesema asked about increasing in-person instruction for the younger students, but Helber reiterated there has been an increase in cases in that age group and younger students find it more difficult to maintain mitigation recommendations.
Assistant Superintendent Marcus Kaemming added that increasing the density would result in more students quarantined, because the close contact distance remains at six feet.
The data presentation is on the district’s website here: https://campussuite-storage.s3.amazonaws.com/prod/1558552/3ab3882e-5535-11e8-afbb-0a0f7059ce40/2251655/f3d1d06a-9c70-11eb-a7b2-025a70d660ed/file/Board%20meeting%20Data%20Capture%20-%20April%2012,%202021.pdf.
The full board discussion is available now that school board meetings are being recorded through Zoom with auto-generated closed captioning. Recordings will be accessible to view for one month on the district’s website at https://www.chelsea.k12.mi.us/boe/agenda-and-minutes: select the yellow rectangle (“Agendas and minutes”), select “Agenda.” When the recording has been uploaded, there will be a link and passcode for the recording instead of a Zoom link to join the meeting. After one month, the recording link will be removed, but will still be available upon request from the school board secretary for three months.
The district’s team is close to completing a draft calendar for the 2021-22 school year for full F2F five days a week. “We know we’re [also] going to have a virtual component for parents who won’t feel comfortable until their children are vaccinated,” said Helber.
The first day of school will be Aug. 30, prior to Labor Day which is permitted due to the county-wide waiver effective through 2023.