Parent Melissa Turner, left, and community member Ann Zaron, right, hold up signs that read “Let Them In or Count Them Out” at the parent protest Oct. 6.

Parent Melissa Turner, left, and community member Ann Zaron, right, hold up signs that read “Let Them In or Count Them Out” at the parent protest Oct. 6.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes


FPS parents and teachers at odds on return to learn plan

Board of Ed, administrators try to find a balance

By: Jonathan Shead | Farmington Press | Published October 26, 2020

 A young student holds a sign that reads “I want to go to school!!” at the protest in downtown Farmington Oct. 6.

A young student holds a sign that reads “I want to go to school!!” at the protest in downtown Farmington Oct. 6.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

 A parent holds up a sign that reads “Open Our Doors FPS Now!” at an Oct. 6 parent protest in downtown Farmington.

A parent holds up a sign that reads “Open Our Doors FPS Now!” at an Oct. 6 parent protest in downtown Farmington.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

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FARMINGTON/FARMINGTONHILLS — Frustrations, questions and concerns have continued to flare over the past month as Farmington Public Schools Board of Education members have made some of the hardest decisions of their terms.

With some parents and staff at odds over when students should return to the classroom, board members and district administrators are tasked with balancing each stakeholder’s needs and offering options.

“One of the biggest things we know we really need to offer is choice,” Assistant Superintendent of Innovation and Strategic Initiatives Kelly Coffin said. “As we’ve been communicating with families hearing from them, obviously, that 70% of them want a choice is really important and can’t be ignored. It’s also about how do we, then, support our teachers in allowing for them to feel involved and engaged in the communication?”

Feedback from surveys put out by the district has shown that roughly 74% of teachers have reported feeling uncomfortable with returning to school, while approximately 60% of parents across the district — closer to 70%-75% when looking at individual schools — want to see their students return to class.

“I feel like they could give people a choice. Give us a choice and give the kids a chance,” parent Jamie Taulbee, who serves as an administrator for the “Farmington MI FPS-Parents FOR in-person Learning 2020” Facebook page, said at an Oct. 6 parent protest. “Nobody is trying to force anybody’s hand. That’s not what our message is. … For the people who need or want to stay home with their children, and can give their children that viable option that works for them, that’s fantastic, but for the family structures that are crumbling, for the parents that had to quit their jobs and the grandparents who all of a sudden had to learn how to use a computer, it’s way too hard.”

Roughly 15 parents and students lined the corners of Grand River Avenue and Farmington Road in downtown Farmington Oct. 6 in a protest organizers called “Let Them In or Count Them Out,” which occurred a day before count day.

Melissa Turner, who is also an administrator for the Facebook group, said the group has grown 70% over the past month, stating the growth likely comes from more parents becoming frustrated.

Left with critical decisions to make, and a myriad of feedback from stakeholders, the Board of Education approved two separate return to learning plans for elementary and secondary students on Oct. 6 and 20, respectively. The district has already brought back students with special needs and has been doing in-person testing.

 

Returning to learning
On Oct. 6, after nearly four hours of presentations and deliberations, the Board of Education voted 4-3 to bring elementary school students back to the classroom in an a.m./p.m. model on Nov. 9. That same evening, the board was presented with three options for returning secondary-level students — an a.m./p.m. and an A/B hybrid plan to return Nov. 30 and a plan that would keep students remote until Jan. 25, 2021.

On Oct. 20, after reconsideration of those plans, board members voted 6-0 to continue with remote learning until Jan. 25, but to also provide additional intervention and support for students needing it. Board member Terry Johnson was absent from the vote.

Many have wondered what data have been used to inform the district’s decision-making and planning processes. Coffin detailed, at the Oct. 6 meeting, that several factors — like infection rate, positive case counts, cases per million, 14-day trend numbers and comparisons to other districts — have been involved.

Not every data point holds equal weight, however, Coffin explained. Community spread aligned with positive case rates and infection rates, along with looking for a flattening curve in the 14-day trend numbers, are the district’s primary focus, she said.

According to a district presentation for school board members, the infection rate, which is recommended to be below 1.0 before returning in person, sat at 0.96 and trending downward in Oakland County as of Oct 20. The infection rate measures the level of spread of the virus, such that a 1.0 infection rate means the virus is spreading from an infected person to only one other person, Coffin explained.

Health officials also recommended phasing back to in-person learning when positive case rates were less than 4%, of tests administered and the county sat at 3.3% trending down on Oct. 6. Cases per million in the county sat at 55.3 trending up as of Oct. 20. Coffin said that number still wasn’t within the recommended 30-35.

“We have decreased our number of cases as of our last report. However, we’re not at the flattening stage yet,” Coffin said. “Those indicators are indicators for us to begin phasing in in-person; they’re not an indicator where we would feel comfortable bringing all students back in a more normal or traditional setting.”

Updated COVID-19 data for Oakland County, presented bi-weekly by the district on their website, shows the infection rate increased to 1.14 trending upward; the positive case rate grew to 3.6% trending upward; and cases per million in Oakland County increased to 68.2 cases per million people.

School and Community Relations Director Diane Bauman said the district would be communicating any changes to the Nov. 9 start date with families by Oct. 30.

The district plans to continue to phase in students after the initial return date for each level while in phase four, Coffin said, and “by phase five, we will bring our kids back with proper social mitigation, which are much less than what they have to be in phase four,” she said, adding that families that wish to stay remote will continue to have that option.

The Board of Education will be required to reconsider and/or re-affirm the district’s return to learning plan at the second meeting of each month.

 

Board recommended, board approved
As more and more districts across metro Detroit return to some model of in-person learning, many parents in the FPS district have been left wondering why their district has yet to return.

“When I talk to my son, he’s 7 and understands everything going on, and he says, ‘Why is my friend in Livonia going to school and I’m not?’ How do I answer that question? … I don’t know what to say to him,” Taulbee said.

The answer to that, Coffin said, lay in the direction given by board members, who decided in August, in a 5-2 vote, that any plan configured by the district must follow highly recommended mitigation strategies and that the district would stay remote until Oct. 30.

Board member Terry Johnson reiterated that point Oct. 6, stating that while he wasn’t happy with the plans presented, he also wasn’t surprised. Administrators followed board members’ directions, he said.

“We as a board have to give better direction of what we want. … This does not fall on you,” he said to administrators. “You did exactly what you were asked to do.”

Superintendent Robert Herrera acknowledged Oct. 6 that, if board members had been OK with not strictly following the highly recommended strategies passed down by state health officials, “administrations could very easily replicate programming that you see in neighboring districts.”

Instead, Coffin added, the district has been in the position of trying to balance conflicting decisions to bring students back sooner and risk the possibility of positive cases or wait to have students return until mitigation strategies can significantly lower those chances.

“I don’t know that anybody has that answer,” she said.

Parents like Taulbee, however, believe that COVID-19 isn’t going anywhere; thus, the district’s decision to push back students’ return has only shifted the risk elsewhere.

“I feel like everything can be done with safety precautions taken into hand. It’s going to happen no matter what kind of measures — there’s always going to be cases; it’s just a matter of getting back to life and getting our kids educated,” Taulbee said. “In the beginning of the school year, all it did was shift the risk to other groups. It made daycares fuller, so it exposed them more. It made family groups forming pods … it shifted the risk there. It put more kids into the private schools, because (parents) wanted their kids to go in person.”

 

Concerns across the board
It’s no easy task having to take in and consider a cross section of concerns from parents, district staff, board members and other stakeholders, but Coffin said the district is trying its best to find a resolution that balances everyone’s needs.

“We recognize for some families, it isn’t soon enough, and we have another (group of) constituents that feel this is too soon,” she said. “As a district, we’re trying to balance that, and we feel offering that choice is our first step.”

Johnson, however, wishes that choice was given months ago, when the school year started. Now, he said, because of the board’s collective decision, the district has lost students to neighboring districts and private schools, including Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic School right in the district’s backyard.

“They’re taking our students, and quite honestly, some of them aren’t going to come back. They’re doing something right,” he said at the Oct. 6 meeting.

For some parents, like Monica Jackson, wanting her children to return to school is more about the lack of social-emotional development than academic frustrations.

“We are damaging our children for years to come that we don’t see now, and I believe that 1,000%,” she said at the Oct. 6 protest. “Nothing scares me as much as the emotional ramifications that are happening right now.”

Pitted between various conflicting viewpoints, Board President Pam Green believes the pandemic has divided the community, and the school community, more than ever. “In a time where we need to find a way to come together to support our students and our staff, it’s done quite the opposite.”

The next Board of Education meeting will be Nov. 10. For more information, visit farmington.k12.mi.us/moving-forward-learning.

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