The Ms. Donald K through 12 Academy of Flint will begin promptly at 8 a.m. Aug. 31 for its four students.
“We’re going to have a hot breakfast and we’re wearing new outfits and we’re going to have our hair done, just like the first day of school,” said Tasha Donald, mother and now de-facto teacher, principal, lunch chef, janitor and behavioral specialist.
Her students, twins Jala and Jada, both 15-years-old, Jordinn, 12, and Journee, 10, will each have a new desk that folds away when they aren’t using it. Donald has also planned out a lunch menu for “Tasha’s Diner” and is working on field trips for her daughters.
She’s doing everything she can to create a school atmosphere in the midst of a pandemic that has many kids learning via computers instead of next to classmates.
With most students in Michigan returning to school in just a few weeks, and some already back to school, many parents are preparing to once again be expected to play multiple new roles in their children’s education. Some are embracing the change, while others are frustrated with the limited options and concerned about taking on the myriad of other new roles in their kids’ lives.
What is the Plan?
Lawmakers recently passed legislation aimed at guiding schools through the back to school process. The bills do not require in-person instruction, but there are provisions that once school districts determine it’s safe for kids to go back, that districts prioritize getting elementary students in the classrooms first.
School boards would be required to revisit their learning plans publicly once a month and provide a chance for public comment. There would also be changes to the per-pupil funding formula. Districts would have to prove that they are providing at least two two-way interactions a week between at least 75 percent of enrolled students and their teachers.
“Parents in our state deserve peace of mind knowing that their children are going to receive the quality education that prepares them for future success,” said Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) during a floor speech ahead of a final House vote.
But right now parents are feeling anything but “peace of mind.”
School districts have been allowed to come up with their own plans for starting the school year, and parents say the plans are complicated.
“It’s total chaos,” said Colleen Brewer of Yipsilanti. Her older son Zachary, 16, is a senior at Huron High School and younger son Maxwell, 13, is a freshman.
Brewer said the students were given three options, none of which involved in-person learning at first.
While she’s happy her boys won’t be learning in person, Brewer said there is still so much she doesn’t know about how the school year is going to go.
“There’s a whole bunch of, ‘Okay now what,” she said. “There’s a ton of questions going on and I just don’t have the answer.”
Brewer said she doesn’t know if 9th grade is going to have orientation, what classes her kids are going to be in, how and if her son will be able to do his automotive program, when and how they can pick up electronic devices for learning, and why her son is still expected to go to baseball practice when there is no in-person learning at the school. Just to list a few of her questions.
Despite many schools coming up with multiple options, parents — especially those who want their kids to be in the classroom — sometimes feel that they aren’t actually given real choices.
“They gave us two options, virtual one or virtual two,” said Emily Florence of three of her five kids’ district, Plymouth Canton. Both the options required distance learning to start, with one allowing for a possible in-person instruction at some point during the year.
“It is as if they gave us an option of grape Kool-aid or grape pop when we were hoping to have orange. It really was not an option for my family,” she said.
In Grand Rapids, Kristin Berrios said the Forest Hills District has been great with communicating what is going on with parents, but the plans they put out don’t make sense to her.
Initially, her nine year-old daughter Maia was going to be able to start 4th grade full time in person, which is what Berrios wanted.
But the plan changed, and now all students will start out with a hybrid plan. Students will be put in groups based on last names. Group A goes in Monday and Wednesday during the first week and Tuesday and Thursday the second week. Group B goes in the other days and when students aren’t in the building, they’re doing online instruction.
Then the whole plan will be re-evaluated.
“I know that this change in our reopening plan for the elementary level is frustrating,” said Superintendent Dan Behm in an email to parents. “However, this more protective plan maximizes health and safety during this period of increased cases, provides time to monitor cases in our area, and safely begins in-person instruction for our youngest students.”
Berrios is unconvinced.
“I feel like two weeks is just kind of silly,” Berrios said. “Either just do it or don’t.”
“And it’s so hard to get kids into a schedule and structure again anyway, I just don’t understand the thought process behind that,” she said.
The schools and administrators are familiar with the questions parents like Berrios and Brewer have, and have received dozens more, said Peter Spadafore, deputy executive director with the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators (MASA).
“We’ve never had a more unpredictable year,” Spadafore said.
The MASA is encouraging its members to be open and honest with parents about their restart plans, especially given that what parents want most is certainty, Spadafore said.
“There are certain situations right now where there is uncertainty,” he said.
“Right now we’re listening with compassion and understanding and working to answer those questions and clear up that confusion, address some of that anger.”
Donald’s girls go to Flint area schools, Madison Academy High School for Jala and Jada and Burton Glenn Charter Academy for Jordinn and Journee. Both are offering in-person and remote learning.
But Donald is opting for her girls to learn from home full time. She said she knows several people who have contracted COVID-19, including a cousin who had to be hospitalized.
“It was a really tough decision but I really just have to step back and think, you know, we have to be healthy. Being safe and healthy is number one priority,” she said.
“Of course academics matter as well, but if we’re not well, if we’re on ventilators or passing COVID around, we can’t even learn.”
For some parents, the potential risks of COVID-19 are far outweighed by what they feel are the needs of their children.
Nine-year-old Maia Berrios needs to be in school, with her classmates, for her own good, said her mother. Maia goes to Collins Elementary in Grand Rapids.
Berrios said when schools shut down in the spring and finished out the school year online, things did not go well for Maia.
“She’d be in her chair upside down. And I was trying to work from home,” she said. “And she would just struggle and throw up walls and mental blocks about the most simple tasks. It was just bad.”
Last spring, the students in Maia’s class would meet online for small groups a couple times a week and then meet as a whole class once a week, Berrios said. But that would just make Maia more depressed because she couldn’t see her friends.
Berrios said her daughter needs that in person engagement in order to succeed in school and be her usual, happy self. And that need has her wishing that the Forest Hills School District was in person all week.
“I’m not going to live in fear. It totally overrides what I saw – her mental health is of great concern for me,” Berrios said. “And that sounds horrible for a 9-year-old to even have to worry about that.”
Lots of parents are worried about the impact remote learning will have on their children’s mental health, but, “In general, kids are resilient,” said Dr. Sheila Marcus, a pediatric psychiatrist at Michigan Medicine C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. They’ve put together a series of videos to help parents during the pandemic.
“The deficit for socialization in the fall are no different than they were over the summer,” Marcus said. “They’ll be better because there will be virtual classrooms which there was not presumably for most of the kids over the summer.”
But there are things parents can do to try and help their kids through the fall, Marcus said.
Parents can help them through this time by arranging for socialization using Zoom and other types of video chatting, Marcus said. They can also come up with routines and rituals that include things like outdoor time and snack time at home, “and ideally embedded within that would be just some chat time or some recess, open Zoom time with their classmates,” Marcus said.
School districts that are holding in person learning have mask requirements for students and teachers that come into the buildings.
Requiring students to wear masks creates an environment of fear, that Hudsonville mom Robin Byers isn’t comfortable with. Byers’s 13-year-old daughter Ava will be going back to school in person full time, but Byers wishes the school wasn’t putting so many restrictions on students.
Byers said she is more concerned about what the increase in chemicals the school will be using to clean the building and wearing a mask for a majority of the day will do her daughter than coronavirus.
“Our kids are the ones that are really going to be suffering for it if they have to come back and be constantly policed,” Byers said. “I don’t feel good about what they’ll have to experience.”
Some parents aren’t convinced that students will even wear the masks.
“The students aren’t going to wear them,” said Thomas Harvey of Grand Rapids. His 15-year-old son Preston is signed up for the hybrid plan at Forest Hills Northern. “If the school can’t control the drugs and smoking in the bathroom, how are they going to control the students in hallways and different things like that?”
Preston is signed up for a hybrid plan where students spend part of the week in classrooms and part of the week doing online instruction. Harvey said he signed Preston up for the hybrid plan so he can stay in his Project NEXT program and have his planned teachers, but Preston won’t be going into school.
“I think it’s crazy any school would open up right now,” he said. “I feel that there’s no reason that students can’t stay at home and do learning that way.”
Brewer doesn’t want her kids to go into the schools, but she’s not convinced that her sons, especially her oldest, will really pay attention during online instruction. Brewer won’t be able to work remotely as much during the school year.
“They’ll probably be on the computer during their class, and they’ll probably be on their phone or they’ll probably be on a different computer playing games,” she said. “And there’s nothing I can do to control that because I will not be there.”
Mom-of-all-trades Donald, said she hurts for her girls. They want to go back to school and were excited about activities like volleyball. And for Jordinn, the 8th grader, it was her last year in the school she has been going to since kindergarten. But Donald is determined to make the best of it, and she said she hopes parents will embrace this time.
“We were grabbing things and on the go, all the time,” said Donald. “So now we can utilize this time to teach our children things and to be a part of their education, and to kind of slow things down and put families back in perspective of what it should be.”
To help you navigate this complicated fall, we’re pleased to offer you a simpler way to get all of your education news: Our new Michigan Schools: Education in the COVID Era newsletter delivered right to your inbox. To receive this newsletter, simply click here to sign up.
Read more on MLive:
COVID-19 PREVENTION TIPS
In addition to washing hands regularly and not touching your face, officials recommend practicing social distancing, assuming anyone may be carrying the virus.
Health officials say you should be staying at least 6 feet away from others and working from home, if possible.
Use disinfecting wipes or disinfecting spray cleaners on frequently-touched surfaces in your home (door handles, faucets, countertops) and carry hand sanitizer with you when you go into places like stores.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has also issued executive orders requiring people to wear face coverings over their mouth and nose while in public indoor and crowded outdoor spaces. See an explanation of what that means here.