Back To School Plans For Ann Arbor Public School District In Place, Taking It One Step At A Time

Aug 2, 2021

Ann Arbor Pioneer High School
Credit Ann Arbor Public Schools / a2schools.org

The plan is to open the doors to all Ann Arbor Public School district students later this month, August 30th. WEMU'S Lisa Barry talks with Ann Arbor school superintendent Dr. Jeanice Swift about the current plans for reopening in a pandemic that include universal masking and "redesigned" before and after-school care for students.


TRANSCRIPTION:

Lisa Barry: After a year of virtual, at-home learning for Ann Arbor Public School students due to the COVID-19 pandemic, school officials are getting ready to open the doors for in-person learning at the end of this month. This is Lisa Barry, and the entire process has created confusion and controversy for some parents and educators. And joining us to help sort that all out is Ann Arbor School Superintendent Dr. Jeanice Swift. Thanks so much for talking to us.

Ann Arbor Public Schools superintendent Dr. Jeanice Swift
Credit Lisa Barry / 89.1 WEMU

Dr. Jeanice Swift: It's great to be with you today.

Lisa Barry: You put out your superintendent's update a few days ago. And I think what created the most buzz was the universal mask mandate. Can you tell us about that?

Dr. Jeanice Swift: Yes. Well, you know, we said from the very beginning, we have held students and staff, family and community health, and safety as our top priority throughout this COVID time. And what we know about masking is that it is a very simple step that really protects and improves and operates is another layer of protection, layer of support for all inside our school buildings. Now, we will note we said that that masking requirement is for indoors only.

Lisa Barry: Another area of great community concern, I'm hearing a lot about, as the before and after-school extended daycare. Now, that originally was canceled. And now I understand from your update that I mentioned, you're working on some compromises, our plans to then let's go back to the beginning. What was the original thinking or reasoning behind the cancelation?

Dr. Jeanice Swift: Well, Lisa, from the very beginning, and that was back in May, we recognize that our model of before and after care, and as it has been for several decades, was a large group model. So, by that, we would have, you know, 30, 40, 60, 80, even 100 students in large group settings before and after school. So, we knew from the spring that we would need to redesign the program. So, when we made that announcement in May, we also committed ourselves to a redesign and we worked very vigorously on that redesign. It puts students into smaller groups, so that we can maintain another one of our layers of support, which is the cohort in smaller student groupings that are so important for our health and safety during this COVID time.

Lisa Barry:  What percentage of the students do you think you'll be able to incorporate into that with this new plan versus what you were providing before it was canceled?

Dr. Jeanice Swift: So, we currently have about 300 students across eight schools who will be involved in the full time before and after-school care. That offers very much exactly what we offered before, except that those care situations have been redesigned into smaller groups that are necessary. Now, in addition to those 300 students, very shortly, we'll be opening around 50 after-school enrichment, enrollment opportunities. And those are classes, groups of students that will extend across our campuses and that will serve around a thousand students. So, Lisa, we are very much in line with the number of students that we served before. But it is, of course, the case that parents will need to register their students for particular enrichment courses, and those courses will continue, as they always have with Rec and Ed throughout the school year. So, a fall session, a winter session, a spring session, and parents will be able to base that on the interest that their students have. And one of our most common classes is the class that's called Let's Play. And it's an opportunity for students to be involved in different activities, physical activities, in games, etc.. That was a very popular class last year, and we'll be using that class a lot during the 21-22 school year, really using this enrichment design to balance out that school age child care.

Lisa Barry: Washtenaw County has been given 71 million dollars in federal COVID relief assistance and there's been some discussion about using some of that money for before and after=school care. Is that something you'd be open to?

Dr. Jeanice Swift: Well, we just appreciate, Lisa, everyone who's reached out to assist. We are going to use extra dollars to support with the before and after-school extended day programs across our 21 campuses, and what we're asking folks to do, if they'd like to reach out to help, is really to contact Rec and Ed at rec and ed a2 schools dot org and donate to support parents who may need scholarship support. And you know, Lisa, we've always shipped approximately one quarter of our parents. Twenty five percent. That's been pretty consistent over several years. But we just feel like it's a great time for those who want to help really to extend that help directly to our parents and families.

Lisa Barry: With the emergence of breakthrough cases now, COVID-19 and this Delta variant, some parents may not want to send their kids back into the classroom. So I just want to clarify. Are you still offering some virtual learning opportunities for students?

Dr. Jeanice Swift: So, we absolutely understand. And with every day that passes this summer, there are concerns with the Delta variant and with the spread of COVID. We understand that there will be parents who are not in families for whatever reason. They're just not ready yet to return to face to face. So, back last spring, we offered in all of the information is right at A2 schools dot org. But we have our A2 virtual village, and we said there are two programs inside that A2 virtual village offering. One is at A2 Live. meaning of the student in the teacher in the class are all live in the virtual classroom together. In the other offering is our end our A2 virtual program, and that is a more independent educational experience. The student still meets with their AAPS teacher and get support and feedback on the work. But it is not a virtual live classroom, and that's really appropriate. Some of our parents really prefer that their students not have the screen time, so we will continue to offer both of the virtual options throughout this 21-22 school year.

Lisa Barry: But the overall plan is to get everyone back into the classroom.

Dr. Jeanice Swift: Yes. We absolutely know that the best place for students and for our staff, when everyone feels safe enough to do it, the best place is inside our school buildings. And, you know, we've taken this charge to safely reopen our campuses and to ensure that they remain open for full, interrupted, in-person learning for all of our students this school year. So, our plans are deep and wide for our layers of mitigation strategy to support students and staff safety and health throughout this school year. But I want to be clear. We're going to open on August 30th. We will remain open throughout this school year. We know that our students need to be in school. Our staff needs to be closely connected to our students.

Lisa Barry: Yet, we're all learning as we go during this period. That's the plan. I know you've heard from a lot of parents who are anxious to get back in the classroom, but I'm wondering how flexible do you have to be to keep everyone safe and learning as we continue to move through this pandemic. It is not over yet.

Dr. Jeanice Swift: You know, Lisa, it is not over yet. And I so appreciate that reality check. It is important for all of us to remember we are not out of COVID yet. So, we will be layering mitigation strategies, protection strategies across our school campuses. And, as a community, we're just issuing that call to action to every one of us who qualify for a vaccine. We know that that is the most effective step that we can all take in, particularly, at this critical time when our children below twelve years of age are not yet able to be vaccinated. All of us who can that is a step we can take to protect our children. So, we will take this one step at a time. We have the tools of testing and vaccination and contact tracing that we didn't have a year ago. All of this is in place. So, we're going to use those tools, publish our data. We'll take this step by step together as a community, and as we have had to do through all of the other unknown factors that we've been through.

Lisa Barry: This is sort of a personal question, Dr. Jeanice Swift. I wonder if you ever feel like you're in a no-win situation because everyone has an opinion on what to do, and we're all treading new territory in this pandemic. And what do you want to say to concerned citizens and parents and politicians that you do hear what they're saying and airing their concerns about what's happening with Ann Arbor Public Schools?

Dr. Jeanice Swift: You know, Lisa, there's never been a time I don't believe in the history of public education where we've had just more diverse opinions and preferences and needs than throughout this COVID pandemic. But I just want to direct all of us toward what matters most, and that is the children that we share together. We are so excited to be reunited inside our school buildings with our students. And yet at the same time, we know that our needs and preferences differ widely in families. So, we will continue to offer the virtual option. We may not agree on all of the details of how to do this time in school, but what I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, we agree on is the importance in the primacy of caring for our students and supporting them in keeping them safe and healthy, so that they can be well-educated in the Ann Arbor public schools. I'm just calling out to all of us. Let's turn the page from where we've been and open the door to this next chapter.

Lisa Barry: Ann Arbor school superintendent Dr. Jeanice Swift. Thanks so much for talking to us.

Dr. Jeanice Swift: Thank you, Lisa. I appreciate your time today.

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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