Farmington Public Schools (FPS) trustees voted Tuesday to relax COVID-19 mitigation measures enough to allow at least 20 hours of in-person instruction by April 12.
The move comes after changes to state and federal guidelines and an increase in vaccinations available to teachers. Board president Terri Weems said that Oakland Schools has partnered with DMC Hospital to ensure all teachers have access.
Officials also noted passage of a Michigan House bill that tied federal funds to offering at least 20 hours of in-person learning by March 22. Governor Gretchen Whitmer and her staff are looking into whether the requirement is enforceable.
This month marks a year since Whitmer closed school buildings across the state, to mitigate spread of the COVID-19 virus. FPS has offered a hybrid option across all grade levels since January, with four half-days for elementary students and two full days for secondary students, combined with remote learning.
Families want more in-person
Assistant Superintendent for Innovation and Strategic Initiatives Kelly Coffin said percentages vary by building; under 50 percent of secondary students and 40-70 percent of elementary students have chosen face-to-face instruction.
Because of building configurations, Coffin said, the district has not been able to offer in-person to all elementary students who’ve requested it. She said some families who wanted in-person have returned to remote learning. Those who are in-person want more classroom time.
Weems said trustees would have to change a decision made six months ago that requires the highest level of COVID-19 mitigation strategies. The six feet of social distancing limits classroom space.
Interim Superintendent Bobbie Hayes Goodrum said new, more general guidelines released in January still recommend six feet, but have added “when feasible.” Under three feet, recommendations call for “layered mitigation” – masks, air filtration systems, hand sanitizing, and separating students into groups, all of which FPS is doing, she said.
If the district relaxes social distancing, Goodrum said, more students will be quarantined after someone tests positive. Since January, 23 confirmed cases across the district have resulted in four quarantines of full classrooms or teams.
“In districts where they have more in-person, it’s not that more students are testing positive, it’s that the number of students they have to quarantine becomes significant,” she said. “People need to understand if we do this, more students will be in those 10-day quarantines throughout the district. This is not a scare tactic, this is a reality, this is what we’ve seen.”
‘A Herculean task’
Goodrum said achieving 20 hours of instruction will require changes to both in-person and remote learning, bus schedules, and cleaning schedules, as well as hiring additional support staff.
“When I tell you it is possible to do this, I want you to know that it is going to be on the backs of every single staff in this district,” she said. “It is a Herculean task.”
“Once we make a decision,” she added, “please don’t ask our teachers to change our schedules another time after this.”
The plan under consideration, according to a statement released after the meeting, is five 4-hour days for elementary students, without lunch, and four full days for middle and high school students. If the Michigan House bill provision proves valid, the new schedule will take effect by March 22.
Trustees unanimously approved two motions. The first relaxes six-foot social distancing and other mitigation measures (within current state and federal guidelines), and gives Goodrum the authority to make decisions that increase in-person learning. The second establishes the April 12 deadline and 20-hour standard.
Because school transmission has not been an issue, board vice president Zach Rich said, residents must work to prevent community spread.
“If we are going to be decreasing our safety standards, that’s putting it on all of you to actually follow the guidelines,” he said. “That’s the only way we’re going to get through this.”
Watch the meeting (conversations start at the 1:18:40 and 2:42:00 marks):
Editor’s note: This article has been updated with information provided by the district after the meeting.