After weeks of deliberation and discussion, Ann Arbor Public Schools has set dates for a return to in-person learning, the first of which is March 25. The plan is a hybrid of in-person and virtual learning, and families still have an entirely virtual option if that is what they prefer.
During the school board meeting, which took place at noon on Wednesday, the board voted 6-0 to approve the plan. Trustee Ernesto Querijero abstained, due to concerns about the time change for the meeting being in violation of the board's bylaws.
This decision comes days after Ann Arbor Mayor Chris Taylor and several members of city council wrote a letter to the school board, asking the board to establish an in-person learning plan and date of return.
Superintendent Jeanice Swift addressed the somewhat tumultuous process of coming to this recommendation, saying that she was getting updates as recently as Tuesday afternoon that influenced her recommendation, but it was ultimately a much-needed step for the community.
"Our children need in-school learning opportunities. Our staff and parents, who have worked so valiantly at kitchen tables across this community: everyone has made so many sacrifices. At this time, we need to provide the option for in-school learning. Our community needs this next step."
Swift also acknowledged that the option for in-person learning wouldn't be right for every single family in the district.
"The priority of health and safety that has guided us through these months will continue. It will not change now. We hear and understand that our children and our families fall along a wide continuum of preferences and needs in their family situations when it comes to COVID and returning to school. COVID school is certainly not a one-size fits all option."
The first groups of students will return in a hybrid learning plan on March 25. Those students include pre-kindergarteners, young fives students, kindergarteners, and small groups of students from grades 6-12.
The district's spring break begins on March 29, and the next phase of students will return when classes begin again on April 5. Those students will be first and second grade students. On April 12, third, fourth, and fifth grade students will begin returning to the classroom. April 12 will also mark the beginning of the phased return of middle school and high school students.
The plan has students in cohorts, based on last name. One cohort of students would come to school Monday and Tuesday, and do virtual, synchronous learning on Thursdays and Fridays. The other cohort would have those days reversed, doing virtual learning on Monday and Tuesday and coming into the building on Thursday and Friday. Wednesday would be an asynchronous, independent learning day for all students.
During Wednesday's meeting, the superintendent also said that students and staff alike would have access to rapid COVID-19 tests in buildings. Swift also noted the plan's dependence on access to the vaccine.
"It would be contingent upon full vaccination process, meaning that every staff member has had the invitation and the opportunity to be vaccinated," she said.
Trustees were largely supportive of the plan, and expressed excitement to have reached the point where such a plan was feasible. One trustee, Jeff Gaynor, acknowledged the difficulties that this hybrid model would present.
"There will be drawbacks to teaching and learning in this high-flex mode where teachers are teaching students at home and in-person. I understand the many valid reasons to have students in school for social and emotional reasons, I fully expect we'll take every mitigation strategy seriously, but it won't be balancing off the issues of having to introduce a group of students to in-person routines," he says. "It's a complex decision, but I will be supporting this proposal."
The item drew significant public comment from members of the community, which were read during the re-convening of the meeting at 7pm. Over 200 people submitted comments before the time of the meeting.
Fred Klein is the president of the Ann Arbor Education Association, a branch of the Michigan Education Association. He said the union and the district had been working very closely to develop virtual, in-person, and hybrid learning options, and he appreciates the cooperation and concern for the health and safety of staff.
"We've been constantly getting input from our membership about the concerns they have. My understanding is that we're still basing the return on the contingency that every staff member being asked to return has the opportunity to be vaccinated and access to the vaccine."
He added that the union will survey its membership early next week, anticipating more educators having access to the vaccine this weekend.
The superintendent also said that AAPS is setting a goal of returning all students to school buildings full-time, five days a week, in fall of 2021.