Kalamazoo Public Schools has been doing remote virtual learning since September, when the school year began. As the district enters its third trimester, the school board will decide on Thursday, February 11 on whether to stay fully remote, or offer a hybrid option.
The hybrid plan put forth by KPS would have students in classrooms two days a week, some synchronous learning on Wednesdays, and two days of asynchronous, independent learning.
Michele Richards is strongly in favor of returning to in-person learning; in fact, she wishes that KPS's hybrid option offered at least four days a week in-person.
Richards and her family have lived in Kalamazoo for years, but she says when it became clear that remote learning wasn't an option for her daughter, who has autism spectrum disorder, they temporarily relocated to Elk Rapids, whose schools are doing in-person learning.
"Our daughter does not do well with screens, and she struggles with the social piece. Not having that interaction with human beings, there was no learning. I could do nothing: I bought workbooks, I paid for apps, I sat with her, I tried really hard to engage her, but I'm her mom, not her teacher, and it didn't work. She got zero percent learning. She would not sit in front of the screen," says Richards.
She says her daughter had been writing full sentences in March of 2020, before KPS went remote, and that progress went out the window.
"In-person is so critical. And I'm not alone! There's psychologists and psychiatrists and sociologists and researchers who have talked about the value of in-person learning, and you cannot duplicate that in the remote setting. We are at a point in the pandemic where we have enough things in place that it can be done, relatively safely, and with relatively low risk," she says. "In the special needs case, having the environment in which you are challenged and it’s someone besides your parent is absolutely critical, you know, for my kid, from my kid’s experience."
Angela Gross isn't so sure about her two kids returning to school. She says her concerns are primarily based on the science on COVID-19: both what we know, and what we don't know.
"Studying it in kids, long term effects in anybody, we don't really know. I fear that if we see any positive movement in numbers, I fear that we might be a little to quick to think we should open up, whether it's restaurants or schools, and then that jump to open again will make the numbers rebound in a negative way and we'll have to close things down again," says Gross.
She says ideally, her kids would return to school in a post-COVID world, where there is herd immunity, cases are isolated, testing is to the point where cases are caught quickly, and where the vaccines are proven to be effective against all variants.
"I would want vaccines for everyone who works in a school building, that wants one and can get one. I wouldn’t be unhappy if kids could also get vaccinated before they went back into the buildings." She acknowledges that might not be anytime soon, saying, "So, because that might be a long time ahead still, I could probably alter some of what I hope to see before I’m willing to send them back, but we still have a ways to go before I’d feel comfortable doing that."
She says it's also incredibly concerning that many teachers have struggled to actually get a COVID-19 vaccine.
Gross and Richards both agree that their kids need consistency from their education. For Richards, consistency is key to her daughter's progress as a student.
"I think the hybrid option does squat. It's two days of in-person learning and three days of 'you're on your own,' basically, and that's not going to solve the problems that we're struggling with in this district." That doesn't give her daughter the consistency and human contact she needs to succeed, Richards says. "Our parameters were, it's got to be at least four days in-person."
Gross is concerned about the potential fluctuation of COVID cases and the worsening of the pandemic, as well as an outbreak in school. She doesn't want her kids to have to adjust and re-adjust to potential school closures.
"It will be weird: two days there, masks, social distancing, it's not going to be 'regular school.' To have it close again, and try to re-shift back to virtual? For the length of the school year that's remaining, I would rather avoid those extra transitions and bumps and new things to adapt to, and just kind of grit my teeth and get to the end of the year," Gross says.
Both parents also acknowledged that they can only really speak for their own families.
"In a time like this, there's isn't a solution that works for everybody, and to be honest, there's really not a solution that works well for anybody. Nothing is fitting everybody ideally. I don't take any issue with folks that might have a different idea than me. Their kids might need and get different things than school that maybe mine don't," Gross says.
"I haven't been interested with arguing with people for having a different perspective because there are a million different reasons to be for virtual school. We're all in a really crazy, unprecedented time."