Ann Arbor Public Schools Face Many Challenges Holding Classes During Ongoing Pandemic

Oct 6, 2021

Pittsfield Elementary School
Credit Ann Arbor Wiki / localwiki.org

It’s been over a month now since Ann Arbor public school students have been back in the classroom as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

WEMU's Lisa Barry talks with Ann Arbor school superintendent Dr. Jeanice Swift about the many challenges they are dealing with to keep kids still learning in the classroom despite the continuing global health crisis.


TRANSCRIPTION:

Lisa Barry: School has been back in session for over a month now in the Ann Arbor Public School district. I'm Lisa Barry, so we thought we'd check in with Ann Arbor School Superintendent Dr. Jeanice Swift to find out how it's going holding classes as a pandemic draws on. Thanks for joining us, Dr. Swift. How you holding up? 

Ann Arbor Public Schools superintendent Dr. Jeanice Swift
Credit Ann Arbor Public Schools / a2schools.org

Dr. Jeanice Swift:  Well, it's great to be with you, Lisa. Thank you. And schools are open. So that's the good news. 

Lisa Barry: Is there not good news? I mean, I always try to stay positive, but I guess I'm looking for a reality check on how it's going. 

Dr. Jeanice Swift: You know, it's funny you would use the reality because that's the word that we use. Andcertainly having our students and our staff back inside our schools, our schools fully open. That is progress, and we just want to celebrate that progress. It is wonderful to see happy children in school. They are learning and growing and thriving under the guidance of our teachers and our team. And yet, we do have some realities that we are facing this fall, really about three areas. And one is that concern that in our elementary schools and really all the way through part of middle school through 12 years of age, our students are unable at this point to receive vaccinations. So, certainly that concern about COVID in school continues. Secondly, as you've heard nationwide, we're just really faced with some of our staffing and operational challenges, specifically busing and transportation. Some of those operations, we are just simply not at the high level that we work for and plan for and expect in the district. So, we are continuing to make those corrections and improvements just as quickly as we can this fall. Our COVID concerns and then operational challenges and then our staffing and labor shortages really are that kind of the three areas that we're focused on. 

Lisa Barry: How bad is it? What is the impact of the labor shortage on Ann Arbor Public Schools? 

Dr. Jeanice Swift: It's straightforward, and yet, we are finding really this to represents not just a turnover of labor that you expect, but really to represent that a number of our part-time and hourly workers are a percentage of that workforce has really decided not to return to work. And so, what we are seeing is really a societal shift in who will fulfill these roles of bus driver and child care workers and food and nutrition staff and classroom assistants. This is the bigger question and the challenge that we are that we are all facing, not just Ann Arbor public schools, but it is nationwide. 

Lisa Barry: You mentioned a societal shift. I think that's huge, and you're chartering new territory as we are still officially in a pandemic. Running Ann Arbor Public Schools, Is it going as you might have expected? 

Dr. Jeanice Swift: You know, Lisa, we were prepared for the excitement of the return and our teachers. I speak to and talk with teachers every day, and they are so excited to be back in the classroom with students. And yet, we knew that there would be the realities of COVID and of COVID infections, particularly until we get to that point of pediatric vaccines. We probably, I think all of us in the country, didn't anticipate the labor shortages and even our supply chain issues for things like food are, you know, coming in and other supplies that we need. I think some of those challenges are a little bit more bearable. They're, on a deeper level, a little bit more persistent than what we anticipated and frankly than anything we've ever faced before. 

Lisa Barry: So, sounds like you're saying the challenges are many. 

Dr. Jeanice Swift: They are, Lisa. They are. 

Lisa Barry: And how is the COVID rate going among students? I understand you have one school, Pittsfield Elementary, that is operating remotely now due to is it just COVID or other situations as well? 

Dr. Jeanice Swift: Well, Lisa, we are seeing COVID cases rise in our schools at elementary, middle and high school levels. You are correct. Under the guidance of Washtenaw County Health Department, we did move to remote learning for the five days of this school week for Pittsfield Elementary. That decision was based on confirmed COVID cases. Some suspected school spread and also high rates of student absences. And so, there is there is this reality and we just appreciate everyone in the community working together, so that when that school nurse calls to notify of a close contact, we just appreciate everybody working together because this is our reality in order to keep our classrooms, our students, and our teachers and staff healthy and safe as possible through this time. 

Lisa Barry: Can you share who's getting COVID? Is it the students or the teachers or staff? And are they getting it from vaccinated or unvaccinated people? I don't want to get into privacy health issues here, but I'm just wondering. Is there a trend that you could share with us how it's moving through the schools?

Dr. Jeanice Swift: What we are observing in the cases that we see in and around our schools is really a family impact. So, we see frequently cases of siblings and perhaps parents who become infected together. And perhaps those siblings are across two or three school campuses. So, that is really the pattern that we are observing right at this time. We are excited that in grades seven through 12, typically, when we contact is a close contact of students. Most everyone is vaccinated, so they are able to continue to come to class without disruption. But we do also see in our elementary schools, where students don't yet qualify for a vaccine, that there are impacts and that we do need at times to take a timeout and move to remote for a day or two, depending on Washtenaw County Health advisement, and then return to school in order to stop that spread. 

Lisa Barry: And I know there are some questions and concerns about the mask mandate, due to the recent budget approved by state lawmakers. But, in Ann Arbor Public Schools, you remain dedicated to that mask mandate? 

Dr. Jeanice Swift: We absolutely do. We are practicing our Super six, which requires being fully masked while indoors. And, Lisa, when I walk through schools, I see our students, you know, youngest students all the way through high school. And I just want to give our students, our teachers, our staff, our parents, our community just a huge shoutout, because we are seeing high levels of support and keeping of the mitigation strategies that are necessary to get through this fall COVID time. 

Lisa Barry: And I understand booster shots are now available in Washtenaw County and school employees qualify for that? 

Dr. Jeanice Swift: We are so excited. There are two bright spots of the information that we've recently learned. One is that it appears as if those pediatric vaccinations may come later this fall. So, we are very excited, as I know our parents are to hear about that possibility. And, secondly you're right, Lisa. Our teachers and our school staff have qualified under that occupational category for the booster shots, and they are actually going to get those now. You remember, Lisa, it was March, April when most of our staff was able to be vaccinated last spring. So, we are right now coming into this six-month timeframe, so we are really grateful that our staff will be able to get boosters. 

Lisa Barry: You're facing so many different issues running Ann Arbor Public Schools. I'm wondering if anyone's listening to this and wants to show their support to you, Dr. Jeanice Swift or the public schools. Is there anything we can do? 

Dr. Jeanice Swift: That's very kind, Lisa. Thank you for that question. Well, we are asking, first of all, is for all of us to practice our mitigation strategies and be vaccinated. That's the best thing we can do to keep our community safe. Secondly, through your network, if you will share our job postings, we just had a very successful fall job fair. That's a first ever. We had a very successful fair last week. We do still have openings across our system. The Ann Arbor Public Schools is a wonderful organization to work for. For those who are called to serve children, we'd love to have you consider one of the many jobs that we have open at this time. 

Lisa Barry: Ann Arbor school superintendent Dr. Jeanice Swift. Thanks for all you do to keep the kids in classes and everybody healthy and continued luck and support to you moving forward. 

Dr. Jeanice Swift: Yes. Thank you, Lisa. It's a pleasure to be with you, and thank you for all your support in our Ann Arbor community for supporting this effort. We will get through this time, and there are brighter days ahead. And we just appreciate everyone working together to serve and support our students. 

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— Lisa Barry is the host of All Things Considered on WEMU. You can contact Lisa at 734.487.3363, on Twitter @LisaWEMU, or email her at lbarryma@emich.edu