By Harold C. Ford
Following a raucous board of education meeting lasting more than three hours, officials of Flint Community Schools (FCS) decided buildings would not reopen to students on Feb. 22 as previously announced. (See Feb. 19 public statement from FCS superintendent Anita Steward at this link and printed below.)
This follows months of preparation for reopening buildings for face-to-face instruction during which FCS administrators assured FCS board members and the public that students would return to a safe and healthy learning environment:
- Anita Steward, FCS superintendent, Jan. 20, 2021: “We can do that (reopen schools) safely, with social distancing in our classrooms.”
- Kevelin Jones, FCS assistant superintendent, Feb. 10, 2021: “I definitely believe the buildings will be ready on the (Feb) 22nd.”
Safe Return and Recovery Plan
At meeting’s start, at the 9-minute mark, Steward and other central administrators discussed reopening plans during printed agenda item “E. Superintendent’s Communique”:
- FCS would offer hybrid learning models to its students. In-person learning would be offered four days each week on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. Students could also choose distance-learning five days a week. The buildings would be closed to all students on Wednesdays for cleaning and sanitation; and distance-learning would be provided to all students on Wednesdays.
- Students who opt for in-person instruction would be required to wear facial coverings on school buses, in hallways, and common areas except during meals.
- Students and staff would submit to daily temperature checks upon entering the buildings.
- Social distancing would include individual use of restrooms, traffic arrows in the hallways to help guide foot traffic, six-foot spacing of classroom desks, and discouragement of handshakes and hugs.
- Soap, hand sanitizer, and disinfectant wipes would be ever-present throughout the buildings.
- Air filters have been replaced in all buildings; air handling equipment and boiler systems are being upgraded; the chiller at Doyle-Ryder is being replaced.
- Air conditioning equipment at six schools—Brownell, Eisenhower, Freeman, Holmes, Pierce, and Potter—is expected to arrive in about three weeks; installation will start shortly thereafter.
Steward reminded board members that the district’s “Safe Return and Recovery Plan” had received input from administrators, teachers, other staff, community partners, union reps, parents, and board members.
Steward had previously reported that FCS leadership has relied on a team of local health professionals to guide its decision-making during the pandemic:
- Eileen Tomasi, FCS health coordinator
- Gwendolyn Reyes, MD, pediatrician, Hurley Medical Center
- Bobby Mukkamala, MD, American Medical Association chair-elect
- Lawrence Reynolds, MD, medical adviser to Flint mayor Sheldon Neely
- Genesee County Health Department officials
Board members had no immediate response to Steward’s “communique”. That would come later in the meeting.
Board uncertainty and chaos
At the meeting’s 1:13 mark, Carol McIntosh, FCS board president, suddenly departed from the printed agenda following a report by Jones, “26.3 Extended COVID-19 Learning Plan Update – January 29, 2021,” by initiating a discussion of sneeze guards. The Flint board never got to the next agenda item, “26.4 Comparative Membership Report – January 29, 2021,” in the final 1:48 of the meeting.
The remainder of the board meeting was dominated by a rambling discussion of reopening preparations that devolved at times into terse confrontations and name-calling.
Board members expressed concerns about the installment of sneeze guards, water filters and cartridges, and the input of staff. Opinions on the matter were not unanimous.
The board’s newest member, Trustee Adrian Walker, had recently toured the Holmes and Brownell campuses. “I was pleasantly surprised by the things that I saw in place” he said, undecidedly “Having gone to two schools…and seeing what I saw, my mind jumps to the schools: ‘Do they have the right mitigating PPE in place to help when the students come back into the classroom?’”
“We’re really moving in the right direction,” observed Bruce Jordan, the Flint teacher’s union Uniserve Director. “Ms. Steward, and Mr. Jones, and the entire administration team, as well as the leadership of the UTF (United Teachers of Flint) have been working very collaboratively, very hand-in-hand in trying to get the district ready for in-person learning with kids coming back. We’re really moving in the right direction.”
“We’re so woefully ill-prepared,” countered Laura MacIntyre, board treasurer. “We’re not ready to go back to school.” Her comments were in response to others made by Vera Perry, board vice president, and Diana Wright, trustee.
At this point, tensions boiled over.
“You better stop that heifer,” Perry declared.
“I’ve never been on a board before like this,” MacIntyre responded. “I’d rather have my kids home doing virtual learning rather than sick or dead.”
During sharp exchanges between MacIntyre and Joyce Ellis-McNeal, board assistant secretary-treasurer, McIntosh shouted, as she did many times during the meeting, “Order, order, order, order! Hey, hey, hey, hey!”
“We are definitely caught between a rock and a hard place,” McIntosh observed.
Walker noted that the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden was pushing for elementary students to be back in schools, but not for high school students.
Biden nod to reopen schools
U.S. president Joseph Biden voiced his support for schools reopening—especially kindergartners through eighth-graders—at a nationally-broadcast town hall Feb. 20 from Milwaukee. A key question, however, is: What power does the White House have over local school districts’ decisions to reopen schools?
The president could work with Congress to tie funding to school reopening schedules. Included in Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief legislation is $130 billion to help schools implement safety measures.
Whitmer nod to reopen schools
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced on Dec. 19, 2020 that Michigan high schools could reopen for face-to-face instruction starting Dec. 21.
“Michiganders have done a really good job bringing down our seven-day average…by wearing masks, avoiding enclosed gatherings, maintaining social distance,” Whitmer said.
Data provided at Whitmer’s Feb. 17 pandemic press briefing seemed favorable:
- COVID case rates continue to decline in Michigan at 113 cases per million which is down 85 percent from the mid-Nov. 2020 peak.
- 3.9 percent of test in the state are coming back positive, a decline over the previous five weeks.
- 5.2 percent of hospital beds are being used to treat COVID patients, down 779 percent from the state’s late fall peak.
The uncertainty about reopening schools is nationwide:
- Chicago: A standoff between Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) about reopening schools ended when more than two-thirds of CTU members backed a tentative agreement to reopen schools. Elementary students will return March 1.
- California: Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Feb. 19 that 10 percent of COVID vaccinations would be set aside for educators in an effort to kick-start the reopening of public-school campuses.
Nonetheless, political leadership at the national and state levels are encouraging a return to school buildings.
* * * * * *
Message from the office of FCS Superintendent Anita Steward posted at the district’s website on Feb. 19, three days prior to the previously announced reopening of schools on Feb. 22:
FLINT COMMUNITY SCHOOLS PAUSE RETURN TO IN-PERSON
February 19, 2021
Dear Families –
At Flint Community Schools, we are highly confident in the return to school plan we have in place. Unfortunately, there were concerns regarding the sneeze guards—an additional safety measure that, while not a requirement for in-person learning, is something our Board members, families and staff have expressed a strong desire to have in place. For that reason, we are delaying the return to in-person learning until the issues regarding the sneeze guards have been resolved.
We apologize for any inconvenience this causes. We appreciate the patience and understanding of our families and staff members. The safety of our scholars and teachers is our number one concern. We will keep the community updated and announce a new date for the return as soon as possible.
In the meantime, all scholars should plan to continue with distance learning on Monday, February 22.
When we do resume hybrid learning, we will be adhering to all of the health and safety guidelines outlined in our Safe Return and Recovery Plan, which was developed with the input of administrators, teachers, staff, community partners, Board of Education members, union representatives and parents. It is our belief that this plan will guide the continued academic, social and emotional growth of our scholars while maintaining, first and foremost, our commitment to safety and well-being.
We hope to continue to resume some sense of normalcy soon and are eager for our scholars’ return. Thank you for allowing us to serve your family, for your continued commitment to Flint Community Schools, and for remaining Flint Focused.
Your Partner in Education,
Mrs. Anita J. Steward
Superintendent Steward sent the following letter the families of students in the Flint Community Schools on pausing in-person learning: https://4.files.edl.io/33d0/02/19/21/205620-188d7d9b-07b1-41a1-af22-a2ba6303d49c.pdf