Hillside Elementary School is one of eight local elementary schools that will now wait to start in-person instruction until Jan. 11, 2021, after Farmington Public Schools Board of Education trustees unanimously approved the postponement date.

Hillside Elementary School is one of eight local elementary schools that will now wait to start in-person instruction until Jan. 11, 2021, after Farmington Public Schools Board of Education trustees unanimously approved the postponement date.

Photo by Jonathan Shead

Elementary school in-person start date pushed back to January

By: Jonathan Shead | Farmington Press | Published November 20, 2020


FARMINGTON/HILLS — Elementary school students at Farmington Public Schools were gearing up to return to the classroom for the first time since last March in a hybrid model of instruction Nov. 16, but with COVID-19 cases spiking in Oakland County, now they won’t re-enter their school buildings until Jan. 11, 2021.

Board of Education members unanimously voted to approve the administration’s recommended January start date at a Nov. 10 regular meeting.

The postponement of students’ return, and the concerns therein, didn’t arise from the district’s lack of programming, ability to cohort or contract trace, or ability to practice safe mitigation strategies, Superintendent Robert Herrera said at the meeting, but rather comes from the impact the virus’s community spread could have on the district’s ability to fully operationalize its programming.

Since the last time the board met to discuss the elementary school start date, Oakland County went from a C-level risk factor to an E-level risk factor. Criteria district administrators previously indicated were educating their decision-making on return to school have also trended in the wrong direction.

According to Oakland County Schools’ weekly COVID-19 report, as of Nov. 11, cases per million increased to 470 and continue to trend upward. The 14-day average daily positive case count sat at 422 confirmed cases. The positive case rate sat at 12.1% of tests administered, which was above the 4% health officials recommended to districts for returning to in person.

Despite low exposure and transmission rates currently being seen across schools in the county, Herrera said the concern moreso arises with the district’s ability to staff and provide services properly if members of the school system are impacted by community spread and have to quarantine.

“As the number of cases are on the rise … the number of folks that are going to be impacted by that rise in community spread are going to impact our ability to staff and run our departments,” he said. “There’s no way we can reduce or enforce those mitigation strategies on students and staff when they’re not in the schools. The numbers are going to rise, the number of quarantines are going to rise, and we’ve already seen that and we haven’t even returned to in-person learning.”

As of Nov. 10, Herrera said 37 staff members were in quarantine. He added that if approximately seven-eight bus drivers were out sick, it would severely impact the district’s ability to provide transportation to all students, and if 10% of elementary teachers were absent on a given day, those classrooms would have to close for the day due to a lack of enough substitutes to fill them.

Herrera said the district has also seen a surge of parents change their mind about in-person learning. Roughly 140-150 families, across all eight elementary schools, have indicated a desire to continue learning remotely, and the district anticipates that number will continue to rise.

That was again reflected during more than an hour of public comment, where many community members — parents and teachers, some who are also parents in the district — voiced their support to push back the start date. Others, however, advocated for in-person instruction.

“The time has come to start giving students and parents a voice in the decision-making process,” resident Megan Steele said during public comment Nov. 10.

Mitigating the disruption to families by avoiding a possible start and stop scenario that could likely occur with increased COVID-19 cases was another guiding factor.

“As much as we would like to have the students return, we believe we’d be bringing them back only to close again due to workforce shortages, quarantines, and positive exposures,” Herrera said. “We’re not certain the benefit of bringing folks back for a short period of time only to expose them at the worst possible point in the pandemic.”

According to Oakland County coronavirus data, the county saw its highest number of cases, 898, Nov. 10 and its second highest, 861, Nov. 14, two totals that in some cases more than double the number of cases seen in the early stages of the pandemic through March and April.

The district continues to work with the Oakland County Health Department to submit and receive approval of their mitigation strategy plans for when returning to in-person teaching is possible. “We know we’re eventually going to want to return, and we know we’re going to make sure we have that endorsement from (the) Health Department for when we are ready to come back to in-person learning,” Herrera said.

Special education and IEP students will continue to be taught remotely as well, and were not a part of the elementary school recommendation Nov. 10. Herrera said the district is still working with health officials and will bring forth a recommendation to the board when it’s available. Secondary students are still set to return Jan. 25, 2021.

“I know we have a lot of parents that want their children to return, and I know this is not going to be good news for them, but we do want them to know we’ve considered what this means to them … but considering all the perspectives on this, and all the things we need to consider, we just don’t believe it’s in the best interest of the entire school community to bring folks back right now,” Herrera said.

Board President Pam Smith agreed.

“I appreciate the magnitude of this decision, and the factors that you guys have thoughtfully considered in all aspects. It’s definitely clear we’d like our students and staff to be able to be in person,” she said. “We know that’s the ideal, but we also know things change daily, and we’re all affected by COVID-19 in one way or another, and we want our staff and students, their safety is a priority for the board.”

For more information, visit farmington.k12.mi.us.