After several hours of public comment and discussion, Farmington Public Schools trustees on Tuesday approved a plan for a remote start to the 2020-21 school year.
The district’s COVID-19 Preparedness and Response Plan, created as a requirement of Executive Order 2020-142, calls for remote learning at least through October 30, with face-to-face instruction phased in after that date.
Currently, Michigan is in Phase 4 of a re-opening plan designed to avoid a second wave of COVID-19 infections. With a recent uptick in infections, though, Governor Gretchen Whitmer has said she won’t decide until closer to the start of the school year whether to dial back and require remote instruction.
The district is also offering a K-12 Virtual Learning Path (VLP), which remains fully online whether the district is in remote or in-person learning. The K-5 VLP will be “paused”, however, during remote learning.
Dr. Kelly Coffin, Assistant Superintendent of Innovation and Strategic Initiatives, said the district will look at phasing in face-to-face instruction for “certain populations” first. She said that may include kindergarten students, at-risk students, or students whose families want in-person classes.
The hybrid model would have students in school two days a week and learning at a distance three days a week. The goal, Coffin said, is to have 100 percent in-person instruction when Michigan enters into the final phase of the Safe Start program.
Public comments, pro and con
Trustees read 140 public comments, starting with one from Lori Tunick, Michigan Education Association Uniserv Director for Farmington Public Schools, who said the Farmington Education Association supports remote learning.
Without it, she wrote, “we will have numerous staff members who will consider applying for and taking either medical leaves of absences or personal leaves of absences,” with others considering early retirement. “This will leave the district in a precarious position with respect to staffing on a daily basis.”
A number of parents supported virtual learning, but said the plans released thus far don’t show enough instructional time. Others asked about how remote learning would work for their special needs students.
Several parents said they are considered “essential workers” and can’t stay home to monitor their children’s learning.
“Fear should not trump education,” Beth Ann Fuller said, adding she and her husband both have full-time jobs. “If they don’t go back, then I want my money back, so I can pay for day care… We don’t all have a village to help with this.”
Teacher and parent Denise Gundle-White encouraged officials to look at how the district could meet families’ various needs. She said some families are creating “learning pods”, small groups of parents who support their students’ learning.
Gundle-White also suggested the board reconsider layoffs that were approved later in the meeting, and “reimagine roles and responsibilities.”
“My most successful class lessons in the spring were when another adult was there helping with engagement and tech issues,” she said. “I hope we are all patient and forgiving with one another… I hope we operate from the lens of what is possible, rather than what is not possible.”
In-person learning is best
After a detailed presentation, Board Vice President Terry Johnson said he could not support the proposal.
Johnson said he has a child with special needs who has regressed since schools shut down in March. He was also concerned about students’ mental health and children who may not live in safe homes.
“I’m a firm believer in face-to-face. I believe that learning is essential,” he said. “I believe that we are, at this point, taking away from our children… I wish the leaders of this state would consider education essential and not just give us money and funding but get us back to where we need to be.”
Johnson said his opposition had nothing to do with the plan, and said he was extremely comfortable that it would work.
Trustee Terri Weems also voted against the plan, which she said did not provide enough information about a path to in-person learning. She also said the district is not ready for in-person or hybrid learning.
“What I’m struggling with is that I’m not seeing enough detail about how we’re going to get where we need to be,” she said. “Ultimately, I think we all want what’s best for children. I believe what’s best for kids is in-person hybrid learning. We’ve got to get there.”
Board president Pam Green, a former principal and teacher, said while nothing can be better than face to face, “we also know that our students must feel safe and secure to input learning. There’s a lot of things at risk here.”
Superintendent Dr. Bob Herrera pointed out that there was no win-win to be had in the decision.
“This is a situation when boards of education are put in extremely tough positions… Your beliefs and the values you bring to the table as you represent the community are extremely important to us,” he said.