With a split vote, Farmington Schools officials on Tuesday re-affirmed plans to have students back in classrooms next month.
Students have been in remote learning since the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, and for the last three months of the 2019-2020 school year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. K-5 students were set to return November 9, and some special education and pre-K students were in buildings, when a jump in Oakland County rates moved everyone back.
Trustees eventually approved a January 11 return to in-person learning for pre-school, special education, and K-5 students. Middle and high school students go back on January 25, the first day of second semester.
Both plans involve students placed in two groups that attend in person on alternating days of the week, with one day fully remote.
Four scheduling tracks
Administrators asked officials to reconfirm those dates, as school staffers continue to work on in-person secondary schedules. Assistant Superintendent of Diversity and Inclusion Bobbi Goodrum said they’re essentially creating four separate tracks for the 6-period day: in-person and remote schedules for two groups.
Students will attend full days in-person either Monday/Wednesday or Tuesday/Thursday, have two full days of remote classwork at their own pace, and one remote day with live classes. Schools will also provide time for support and intervention.
“That is going to take a considerable amount of work. and it will require our counselors and scheduling staff to work through break,” Goodrum said. “We’re fully prepared to do it, but we don’t want to do the work if we’re not going to return in person this year.”
Trustee Jessica Cummings said the work would have to be done whether students went back in January or later in the year.
“I don’t know that I’m prepared tonight to say let’s just wait until fall, because we’ve heard from so many families, let’s get back into the classroom,” she said.
Gaps in learning
Trustee Terri Weems pointed out that the loss of learning in remote classes is “not a theory, it’s a fact. Kids are not learning at the same level.” She said that it’s impossible to know whether students will have to go back and forth between remote and in-person learning in the new year.
“I think we need to plan for getting kids back in school when it is safe to do so,” Weems said, adding the district should also start planning beyond second semester to address expected learning gaps. “I don’t want us to lose that proactiveness and that planning we need to do in order to meet the needs of students.”
Trustee Richard Mukamal asked about alternatives if trustees end up delaying the January start dates. Assistant Superintendent of Innovation and Strategic Initiatives Kelly Coffin said natural options in the calendar would be February 22, winter break, or March 15, the start of the third trimester. She said the board could do a partial start on January 11, returning pre-K and special needs students, then ramp up.
Mukamal also questioned whether the district would have enough substitute teachers and how custodial staff would manage given the recent resignation of facilities director Felicia Venable.
Coffin said before she left, Venable “guaranteed” there will not be a gap in service. “This has been a team approach, and she is very confident that we will not lose a step.” Also, 85 percent of custodial staff positions are filled, a significant increase from August.
Assistant Superintendent of Talent Development Kathy Smith said the district has 30 substitute teachers on deck for buildings and has added in a district-wide layer of 10-20 positions.
“The challenge is that across the county, even prior to COVID, subs are challenging to get as less educators graduate from universities,” she said.
Board president Zach Rich and trustee Angie Smith both expressed concern about infection rates after the holidays.
“I’m still uncomfortable,” Smith said. “People are going to gather, they’re going to do what they want to do. Our numbers may skyrocket.”
“I am very concerned about the amount of community spread we’ll see over the holidays. I can’t be voting on an assumption that things will just be okay,” Rich said.
Coffin pointed out that Oakland County is seeing a flattening and decline of COVID-19 cases in Oakland County. However, while the testing positivity rate has dropped, cases per million are at 274.9, well over the threshold that places the county in the highest risk category.
Trustees split 4-3 on reaffirming the January dates, with Weems, Mukamal, Cheryl Blau, and Cummings in favor, and Rich, Mable Fox, and Smith opposed.
View the “FPS Moving Forward to In-Person Learning” presentation on the district’s website.
Watch the full meeting (this conversation starts around the 2:06:30 mark):