Pediatrician group wants to see students return to school

WBSD superintendent a member of Learning Continuity Work Group

By: Maria Allard | C&G Newspapers | Published July 1, 2020

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METRO DETROIT — One group of professionals is hoping students will head back to school in the fall, despite the COVID-19 outbreak.

On June 26, the Michigan Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, or MIAAP, released a statement in support of students returning to the classroom and encouraged the state of Michigan and school districts to construct COVID-related safety plans. According to the MIAAP, children are at a low risk for COVID-19.

“The MIAAP supports in-person education to the maximum extent possible to promote the overall health and wellness of the children of Michigan,” reads the statement. “While many Michigan schools did an outstanding job adjusting to a virtual learning environment, virtual learning is not comparable to in-person learning for many students.”

Because of COVID-19, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in mid-March closed all public, private and boarding schools until the end of the 2019-2020 school year. She was expected to announce on June 30 — after press time — her “Michigan’s Return to School Roadmap” recommendations for opening schools statewide this September.

“We’re looking to make sure kids are able to return to the in-class experience, if possible,” MIAAP Executive Director Jared Burkhart said. “The data points out that kids are less likely (than) adults to get the (virus) and then transmit it. This is a virus that isn’t affecting kids as much as adults.”

Members of MIAAP, a nonprofit professional organization of more than 1,400 Michigan pediatricians, want students back in school for several reasons. For starters, the group has concerns about the lack of social interaction for students when they are not in school.

“We know, especially for young children, a lot of learning is socially important. Being in groups and seeing friends is part of the school day,” Burkhart said. “A lot of that was taken away. Feelings of being alone and not being with your friends leads to more mental health problems, (including) depression.

“We’re all created to interact with other humans,” Burkhart said. “They need to bond and create that social fabric around them. Isolation from humans gets to some people, mentally.”

The MIAAP and parents are concerned about children not receiving a proper education if they are learning only online, he said.

“In our discussions with parents in our pediatric offices, we have seen large discrepancies in available at-home learning support, which will assuredly increase the achievement gap. In particular, younger and special needs students rely heavily on having a constantly available, skilled adult at home to scaffold their child’s virtual learning, and an appropriate person for this role rarely exists,” reads the MIAAP’s statement. “Additionally, schools provide important support services, including meals, mental health support, therapy services for special education students, instruction for English language learners and school-based health services. If students are at home, this support structure is greatly reduced.”

“We all know the power of education,” Burkhart said. “Parents know their kids learn best in an in-person environment. We want to make sure kids can grow up and be productive adults.”

The MIAAP understands many elements must be considered to safely reopen schools, according to the group.

“Every district is going to be a little different, depending on many factors. Every school district needs a building-by-building plan,” Burkhart said. “The outbreak is affecting different communities in different ways. The southeast is different than western Michigan or the Upper Peninsula. That has to be taken into consideration.”

In order to allow movement toward the goal of face-to-face learning, the MIAAP advocates for some flexibility in distancing requirements. Those include symptom-screening, face masks, forward-facing seating, the use of partitions, hand sanitizing and other hygiene measures. Students are to avoid being in groups and sharing items, and educators must contact the local health department with information about anyone testing positive for COVID-19. School plans can expect to require adjustment as COVID data continue to emerge.

Burkhart said the MIAAP realizes “there are some parents who don’t want their children back in school.” Therefore, many districts are developing online options for students this fall, should they stay home exclusively.

On June 29, the Learning Continuity Work Group, based in Lansing, released a new website to help Michigan educators prepare for the coming academic year. The Keep Michigan Learning website, keepmichiganlearning.org, provides free resources to help educators assess teaching remotely. The Learning Continuity Work Group is composed of experienced educators and other professionals.

“We owe it to our children to find a way to give them quality educational options during this pandemic. We are in uncharted waters, and there is significant value in convening a group of thought leaders from around the state to examine barriers and identify practical solutions,” said West Bloomfield School District Superintendent Gerald Hill, who’s a member of the Learning Continuity Work Group. “No one has all the answers, and we need to rely on each other to get through this difficult period. I am very impressed by the initial resources developed by the Work Group. I know school leaders will find them useful.”

The Learning Continuity Work Group created the Keep Michigan Learning website to help teachers plan for the return to school in the fall. The website supports face-to-face instruction, hybrid learning and 100% online teaching solutions that may need to shift with little notice based on public health data.