Education Beat: As pandemic numbers surge, student return to Flint schools not likely, officials say

By Harold C. Ford

“I don’t think that students will be returning to school in the 2020 school year.” –Anita Steward,
Flint Community Schools superintendent, Oct. 21, 2020

As pandemic numbers surge in Flint, Anita Steward, Flint Community Schools (FCS) superintendent, told the FCS Board of Education Oct. 21 that students will not likely return to school buildings for face-to-face/brick-and-mortar instruction in 2020.

Conversely, FCS teachers were ordered back into the buildings during the week of Oct. 26.

Coronavirus numbers surge locally, statewide, and across the nation

Steward informed the FCS board that her conjecture about a return to school for students was due to surging coronavirus numbers in the City of Flint. Positivity rates had escalated from 2.1 percent on Sept. 20, to 4.3 percent on Oct. 1, to 6.5 percent on Oct. 16.

FCS Superintendent Anita Steward. (Photo from FCS website)

“The (COVID-19) positivity rate has been going in the wrong direction,” Steward said. Members of the health community have advised FCS that the positivity rate should be less than five percent before students are called back into the school buildings.

“I don’t think that the students will be returning to school in …2020,” Steward concluded.

Further, 49 new positive cases were reported in the city in the six-day period just prior to the board meeting, Oct. 16 – Oct. 21.

“We are in a dangerous moment,” declared Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer Oct. 21, “where there’s the possibility of it just becoming community spread that becomes out of control.”

In the week prior to Whitmer’s statement, the average daily case rate climbed to 1,800, the highest rate since the start of the pandemic, according to the Whitmer administration.

On Oct. 20, one day before Steward’s grim message to the Flint board, The New York Times reported a one-day count of 1,170 coronavirus deaths in the U.S., “the highest in more than a month.” Nine days later on Oct. 29, the Times reported: “Over the past week, there have been an average of 75,522 cases per day, an increase of 41 percent from the average two weeks earlier.”

Differing opinions on ordering teachers back into the buildings

Steward also informed the board that FCS teachers were being ordered back into the buildings the week of Oct. 16. “We…have staff that’s abusing their worktime (at home),” she told the board. “We’ve had staff members, when they were supposed to be at work, they were at the gym…at the grocery store.”

“I caution us to never get into the mindset that we’re managing our employees based on the amount of time versus the amount of work that’s getting done,” Casey Lester, board president, responded. “It becomes a very dark place to be.”

“I think if you have somebody that is abusing something, then we should address those individuals instead of putting other peoples’ health and safety on the line,”  Carol McIntosh, board trustee, added. “We don’t have a vaccine; we don’t have a for-sure treatment; we don’t
have a for-sure cure. Lives is on the line. It’s getting worse; it’s not getting better.”

“We have to be concerned with staff also,” added Danielle Green, board treasurer. “I just don’t think it’s safe for staff or students.”

“Teachers staying at home to work is not the norm,” countered Diana Wright, board vice president. “Most districts have had their teachers go to their buildings to teach since last spring when this pandemic started…Teachers need to be in their classrooms.”

“It’s not a punishment for what a few have done,”  Steward said, adding the classrooms are safe, that materials are in the classrooms to enhance the rigor of virtual/online instruction. “We’re already at a disadvantage because we’re not in face-to-face instruction which is the best form of instruction.”

Kevelin Jones, FCS assistant superintendent, said teachers also need to return to prepare classrooms for the eventual return of students, to test systems they will use for hybrid instruction that involves both face-to-face and online instruction.

Kevelin Jones Flint Community Schools (FCS), assistant superintendent. (Photo from FCS website)

“Then we know how to fix this before scholars actually return to face-to-face learning and online learning,” Jones said. “There’s technical pieces we would have to fix before scholars return.”

“I do not see a need to go into the building,” said Neithercut Elementary School teacher Donna Millikin in an online comment to the board. “All of my resources are available online. What isn’t, I have brought home…I cannot risk exposing myself to this virus since I live with and care for my elderly mother.”

Three learning plans

Steward summarized three “learning plans” for the reopening of schools to students. The plans were detailed at October meetings of the FCS board and included in an Oct. 23 letter to FCS families:

Plan A: continue to learn online until further notice.
Plan B: Only certain grades will return to school in phases, with the goal of allowing scholars who choose to learn face-to-face to do so.
Plan C: All grade levels will return to school in phases, with the goal of allowing scholars who choose to learn face-to-face to do so.

A more detailed explanation of the “learning plans” can be found at the website of East Village Magazine (EVM) in an article posted Oct. 22.

Other pandemic-related developments

Keinona Murphy, FCS director of centralized enrollment, informed the FCS board how Coronavirus Relief Funds (CRF) are being spent.

“These are federal dollars that came directly into the district…for the district to respond to the coronavirus pandemic,” she said.

Murphy stated the CRF funds are being spent on the following: remote learning devices for students; content filtering for the mobile devices to protect students while they’re online; stipends for building principals to conduct after-hours planning sessions with staff to prepare for the return of students; additional technology to increase rigor in online learning.

Steward informed the FCS board that 82 percent of Flint students have been provided devices for virtual/online learning; 18 percent already had such devices.

Cassandra Washington, executive director for human resources, told the FCS board that funds were now available to provide “hazard pay” for instructional staff.

Sekelsky stepping down

Carrie Sekelsky, FCS executive director of finance, is stepping down from her position.

“She’s been an exceptional CFA,” Betty Ramsdell, board trustee, said.  “I truly appreciate her.”

“It is an absolute loss to the Flint schools that you’ll no longer be with us,” Green added.

“I really appreciate everything that you’ve done,” Lester said.  “We’re in a stronger financial position because of you.”

Sekelsky helped guide the district through uncertain times in recent years including:

  • Management of a precarious financial state largely caused by loss of student population and legacy debt from a 2014 loan totaling nearly $20 million;
  • Wrenching discussions about school closures and consolidation of buildings;
  • Continuing loss of student population and resultant loss of state aid;
  • Crafting of an Enhanced Deficit Elimination Plan required by the Michigan Department
    of Treasury;
  • Voter passage of a millage proposal in March 2020 that took a giant step toward restoring
    some financial stability in the district.

Sekelsky, however, may have saved her best for last as she recently uncovered nearly $2 million in revenues owed the district.

“$2 million story”

Lester asked Sekelsky to provide details of her recent “$2 million story.” Sekelsky obliged, explaining to the FCS board that each year the district gets a “foundational allowance” from the State of Michigan that includes a blend of state and local sources of revenue.

“There were some delinquencies in the City of Flint,” said Sekelsky when she more closely scrutinized FCS sources of revenue. “It just didn’t seem right,” she said. “The district had been shorted…for a lot of years.”

“There were some (Flint non-homestead) properties that were not being reported correctly in their system,”  Sekelsky said.

A meeting was convened with representatives from Flint schools, the Michigan Department of Treasury, the Michigan Department of Education, and the Genesee County Treasurer’s Office. Corrections were made in Sept. 2020 that resulted in an increase of state aid of more than $1.9 million which was deposited in the FCS general fund.

“Any money we can get to the district is a win for us,” Sekelsky said.

EVM Education Beat reporter Harold C. Ford can be reached at

Author: Tom Travis

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