Elementary students get off the bus and arrive at Hillside Elementary School Jan. 11 for their first day of in-person instruction since March 2020.

Elementary students get off the bus and arrive at Hillside Elementary School Jan. 11 for their first day of in-person instruction since March 2020.

Photo by Deb Jacques


FPS students, staff return to classroom after almost a year

Board approved Jan. 25 secondary start date

By: Jonathan Shead | Farmington Press | Published January 25, 2021

 Elementary students sport masks as they walk into Hillside Elementary School Jan. 11 for their first day of in-person instruction since March 2020.

Elementary students sport masks as they walk into Hillside Elementary School Jan. 11 for their first day of in-person instruction since March 2020.

Photo by Deb Jacques

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FARMINGTON/HILLS — It’s been almost a full year since most students and staff at Farmington Public Schools saw the inside of a classroom, but all of that changed Jan. 11 when elementary school students returned to in-person learning through a hybrid a.m./p.m. model.

“We were elated. We were so happy,” Beechview Elementary School parent Ruthie Ilich said. “My daughter needed to go. She needed that social interaction, so we were extremely happy.”

Board of Education trustees reconfirmed the district’s elementary school learning plan, to keep them in the current hybrid format, and approved in a 4-3 vote at their Jan. 19 meeting the return to a hybrid in-person learning model for secondary students Jan. 25.

Board Vice President Zach Rich, and trustees Angie Smith and Mable Fox voted against the motion.

Getting to the point of returning to school has been a roller coaster for district personnel and families involved.

Board trustees originally approved the return for elementary students at their Jan. 5 meeting, but a day later, trustees called for a special meeting Jan. 8 with the only agenda item being about an in-person return. Recommendations that came from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services encouraging districts to reconvene in-person instruction by March 1 shifted the plans again, however.

“MDHHS will continue to do what it takes to save lives and limit the spread of COVID-19,” then-Director Robert Gordon said in a press release. “At the same time, in-person instruction is critical for the current and the future well-being of children, especially young learners and students who are disadvantaged. We encourage schools to reopen as soon as they can do so with proven protections for staff and students.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer lauded the recommendation that students return to in-person learning as much as possible. She said her “administration will work closely with (schools) to get it done.”

After recommendations came down from the state, the board canceled its Jan. 8 meeting. “This means that the district will move forward with the return to in-person learning,” a Facebook post read.

As a member of the “Farmington MI FPS-Parents FOR in-person Learning 2020” Facebook page and a vocal advocate for in-person instruction, Ilich said the approval to return from the board made her feel finally heard, but she also said it felt forced.

“I feel if the governor never made that announcement, they would’ve canceled the return to school,” she said. “I think (Whitmer) made the right decision because the data showed that it was OK for kids to return. As far as the Board of Education, I think their hands were tied. I don’t think they had another reason to keep kids out of school.”

Ilich said the return to school since Jan. 11 has made her daughter’s attitude and mentality do a complete 360, but she still has her concerns, especially with the pace at which her daughter and other students are learning.

“I don’t feel like they’re getting close to an education. I feel like if they tested against any other district that has been in school, they would fail miserably,” she said. “I understand districts move at a different pace, but the fact that (I believe) we are so behind other districts, and we’re not returning until this month, I just don’t feel either of my kids are going to (be at) the level they should be.”

 

Secondary students return
At the board’s Jan. 19 meeting, Interim Superintendent Dr. Bobbie Goodrum began by explaining to trustees that the district’s mitigation plans have been approved by the Oakland County Health Division. The challenge she expressed, however, was the number of vaccinations currently available to educators in the county.

Oakland County receives 2,000 vaccine doses every week, with about 75% of doses being administered to seniors about 65 years old, and the other 25% being left for essential workers, which includes not only educators, but first responders and grocery store clerks.

With over 18,000 educators in Oakland County, Goodrum said, it may be “quite quite quite some time” before everyone has the ability to receive the vaccine if allotted doses don’t increase. Still, Goodrum explained to board trustees that the mitigation plan was approved and the district could return its secondary students to school.

Part of the shift in comfortability to return came from district administrators looking at the data differently. Instead of making decisions based on the overall community spread within the county, state health officials are now recommending districts look specifically at their own community and district spread to make informed decisions.

As of the Jan. 19 meeting, Assistant Superintendent of Innovation and Strategic Initiatives Kelly Coffin said, the district’s infection rate stood at a 0.94, which was below the 1.0 recommended number to return to in-person learning. The district’s positivity rate sat at 6.6% and its cases per million were 152.8.

When compared to neighboring communities, by cases per 10,000, the greater Farmington area had 32.8 cases per 10,000; West Bloomfield had 36.7 cases per 10,000; Walled Lake had 45.7 cases per 10,000; Southfield had 26.3 cases per 10,000; and Novi had 30.4 cases per 10,000.

Assistant Superintendent of Talent Development Katherine Smith said the district, which has been tracking internal COVID-19 data since the week of Oct. 30, had seven staff members test positive for the virus and another 24 were in quarantine for the week of Jan. 15, as well as five students test positive and another 32 in quarantine. She said none of those cases were contracted at the schools.

Several issues and concerns came into the fold as trustees and administrators discussed the district’s mitigation plan, staff supports, student supports and more, but when it came time to vote, some board members still didn’t feel comfortable allowing students back to the classroom.

“I still have reservations. … I cannot risk losing a student or staff member. The 22 years I have lived in this community, I have gone to several funerals for students. I don’t want that on my conscience,” Angie Smith said. “I want to thank you all for the work and effort you’ve put in, but I’m just not there yet.”

No students or families are required to attend in-person. Any family that wants to continue distance learning is allowed to.

Weems acknowledged the weight of the decision trustees were responsible to make Jan. 19, stating that thoughts and opinions have come in from all sides.

“I know we’ve had a lot of expressions of fear and concern from many of our staff. At the same time, we’ve also heard from a number of our community members — our parents and our students — dying and begging to go back, who are really at a health risk, in my opinion (due to school closures). Mentally, they’re suffering. Academically, they’re suffering,” she said. “For me, it’s definitely weighing both of those things.”

Ilich believes the benefit of returning to in-person learning outweighs the risk of catching the virus.

“It’s anybody’s choice. I understand there are safety issues. People are at a higher risk, but this virus isn’t going anywhere,” she said. “We have to learn to live with it. As long as you do what you have to do with your kids, making sure they’re washing their hands and keeping a safe distance … I feel 100% safe sending them back to school.”

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

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