By Harold C. Ford
A plan for all Flint students to return to school Aug. 5 on a virtual/online basis only has been approved by the board of the Flint Community School (FCS) district.
Then in September, following recommendations from the state and other sources, FCS students would continue school in three possible formats: face-to-face/brick-and-mortar; virtual/online; or a hybrid of the two.
The full plan is available at the Flint Community Schools website.
After initially turning down the 55-page plan to reopen for the 2020-2021 school year on its first vote, the FCS board approved the plan on a second vote at its regular committee of the whole electronic meeting July 16.
Following a presentation of the reopening plan by Superintendent Anita Steward, who had been appointed June 25 after the firing of Derrick Lopez, the FCS board voted yes-3, no-2. Four affirmative votes are required on a 7-person board for approval. Board members Casey Lester, president, and trustee Blake Strozier were absent.
The Flint reopening plan, 2020-2021 FCS Safe Return and Recovery Plan, was primarily the work of six committees that included: Governance and Communications; Wellness; Instruction/Postsecondary; Facilities; School Operations; and Technology, according to Steward.
The plan drew from state and federal guidelines, months of research, and survey feedback from 100 students, 700 parents and 300 staff members in the district, Steward reported.
A major portion of the Flint reopening document included protocols, or requirements, for face-to-face/brick-and-mortar instruction.
Protocols for movement:
- Using all school entrances
- Visuals, inside and outside, for spacing students and adults six feet apart
- Teacher monitoring of activities such as hanging coats to limit the number of students clustered in a particular activity
- Facial coverings to be worn in hallways and common areas by all preK-12 students
- Suspension of large indoor events
- Limitation of outdoor events to 100 persons with social distancing
Protocols for screening students, staff, visitors:
- Universal use of hand sanitizer upon entrance to buildings
- Questionnaires and screening of school personnel for respiratory symptoms
- Record-keeping of all visitors entering and exiting school buildings
Protocols for PPE (personal protection equipment), handwashing and cleaning:
- Face coverings with few exceptions
- Signage that encourages healthy behaviors
- Student desks sanitized after every class period
- Cleaning of libraries, computer labs, arts classes, and other hands-on classes after every class period
- Weekly or monthly meetings to review the entire process and assess the most recent communications from local, state, and federal sources
- Bus drivers, staff, and all K-12 students to wear face coverings with few exceptions
- Vehicles cleaned before and after every trip
- Student athletes need to confirm they are healthy and provide documentation when required
- Equipment cleaned before and after each use
- Spectators required to have face coverings and observe social distancing
- Handshakes, fist bumps, and other unnecessary contact is prohibited
Protocols for dining, gathering, and extracurricular activities:
- Facial coverings with few exceptions
- No indoor assemblies larger than one classroom
- The possibility that meals may be delivered to classrooms, served from carts
- Eating in cafeteria at assigned seating with social distancing
- Tables cleaned between lunch periods
- Students to wash hands after eating
“It’s a living document,” explained Steward. “There’s nothing that’s concrete or written in stone with the document. It’s fluid and something we can come back to with the board.”
Three key constituent groups—students, parents, and staff—informed the Flint plan, said Steward. “We wanted them to know we were listening to them.”
- Students: About 100 students responded to the district’s survey. Face-to-face/brick-and-mortar learning is preferred by 44 percent of students in 2nd through 6th grades and by 40 percent of students in 7th through 12th grades. During virtual/online learning in the recently completed spring semester, 76 percent of students in 2ndthrough 6th grades and 78 percent of students in 7th through 12th grades found teachers to be “very helpful.” Frequent complaints included “not being able to see their friends and a lack of interaction with teachers.”
- Parents: Almost 700 parents were surveyed. Parents were split about students returning to the school buildings, said Steward. If they do return, parents want “social distancing and disinfecting,” she said. Most parents want learning packets to supplement virtual/online learning. Steward said parents were “proud of the district’s efforts to increase communication…the district did a great job of checking in with them.”
- Staff: About 300 staff members were surveyed. “Staff had mixed feelings about returning to work,” reported Steward. “Their most common apprehensions were related to public health, personal protective equipment, and thorough cleaning of spaces…Cleaning, sanitizing, and social distancing must be instituted to feel more at ease in returning to the workplace.”
How the board moved from “no” to “yes” on the reopening plan
In the initial action by the board, voting in favor of the plan were: Diana Wright, vice president; Betty Ramsdell, secretary; and Vera Perry, trustee. Voting against the plan were: Danielle Green, treasurer; Carol McIntosh, trustee.
Both Green and McIntosh praised Steward for the amount of work that went into developing the plan. And then they both voted to reject it.
Green was the first to raise objections to the plan. “For me, I just cannot accept the thought of children going back into the buildings,” she said. “So, I will not be supporting that they go back at the end of August.”
“I’m concerned too, especially with the (cleaning) because we don’t do that well,” said McIntosh in explaining her no vote. “That’s a different level of cleaning because lives are depending on it.” She added, “It’s a lot to ask young children to be able to follow these strict instructions every day.”
“I am concerned about teachers going back to school with a room full of young children. The younger ones do not understand that they can’t touch their friends, their teacher, or everything in the classroom. How can our safety be guaranteed?” an online commenter. Pam Pfeiffer, said during the virtual meeting.
Facing the prospect of beginning the school year in two weeks with no plan for reopening, Ramsdell, Perry, and Wright prevailed upon the dissenting voters in the virtual discussion to reconsider.
“I’m going to ask if either one of the people who voted ‘nay’ would reconsider,” urged Ramsdell. “I just think this is so important, all the work that went into this.”
“I think the plan that Ms. Steward and her team has put forward is a very good plan,” judged Wright. “I’m going to view it as I do all good plans; they always have the ability to be revised. I think the plan is inclusive and gives us the ability to work with any scenario that may come forth.”
McIntosh signaled her willingness to change her vote. The board then approved the Steward administration’s plan for reopening Flint schools on a 4-1 vote.
The board of education’s initial vote against the plan surprised some observers, who noted that the same board had roundly applauded the choice of Steward as Flint’s new superintendent on June 25 but also initially rebuffed three of her key initiatives. Less than a month into Steward’s administration, board votes initially derailed a plan to move junior high school students from the Northwestern building to Brownell, nixed the hire of Stacey Watson as the new junior high school principal, and nearly rejected plans to reopen Flint schools.
Early start in crafting FCS reopening plan:
Steward informed FCS board members that committee work for the reopening of Flint schools started before Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s office unveiled its school reopening plan on June 30 titled MI Safe Schools: Michigan’s 2020-2021 Return to School Roadmap.
“We wanted to start early so that…we would be prepared,” said Steward. Nonetheless, after its release, pieces from the governor’s plan were inserted into the Flint plan.
Steward said the six committees who developed the plan were staffed by board of education members, administrators, union representatives, paraprofessionals, parents, and community partners.
“Only Karen Christian (United Teachers of Flint president) was a part of one of the committees for UTF,” read a comment submitted online to board members by someone identifying as Bruce Jordan. “No ratifications or meetings held yet to go over any of this plan with UTF.”
Phase 4 status:
The aforementioned Return to School Roadmap released by the Michigan governor’s office provides for six Michigan Safe Start Phases. In phases 1, 2, and 3 there would be no face-to-face/brick-and-mortar instruction; schools would be closed. In phase 4, schools have the option of face-to-face/brick-and-mortar instruction, or virtual/online instruction, or a hybrid of the two. In phases 5 and 6, schools must reopen for face-to-face instruction.
Steward informed FCS board members that the state is currently in a Phase 4 status. The criteria for determining a phase 4 status, in terms of the “virus status”, include:
- The number of new cases and deaths has fallen, but overall case levels are still high.
- Most new outbreaks are identified, tracked, and contained due to testing and tracing.
- The health system can handle new outbreaks.
- Social distancing is still needed to limit the spread of the virus.
Multiple sources for FCS reopening plan:
While borrowing from Michigan’s Return to School Roadmap after its release, the FCS reopening plan relied heavily upon two plans: Nashville Plan: Framework for a Safe, Efficient, and Equitable Return to School, and Return to School Roadmap/Where Public Education and Public Health Meet by Opportunity Lab Initiative.
In all, nearly 20 plans for reopening schools were listed as “Resources” at the end of the FCS plan released to the public. It included plans from three Michigan school districts and plans from at least five other states.
The best laid plans:
“Excellent,” observed Ramsdell following Steward’s presentation of the FCS reopening plan.
“Kudos,” said Perry. “We now have a plan that’s going to cover every piece of education we’re going to have to do.”
EVM Education Beat reporter Harold C. Ford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.