Are the Kids Going Back to School or What?

Had a conversation with school officials about COVID-19 reopening plans and heightened racial tensions, and how that might impact your child this fall?

Schools reopening

As a wife and mother raising two young Black boys (one elementary-age), I am praying every day that God helps keep us. Like other parents, I’m busy working remotely, helping manage our house, preparing my son for school, and – not to mention – doing all this during a pandemic that’s revealed major societal inequities and left me wanting to shield my children from the world.

But. I. Can’t. Especially when my young son asks me why the police are killing innocent people whose skin color looks like his? And he asks poignant questions about the coronavirus, too. But what are schools doing? Do I even want to send him back into all this? Yet, what’s a parent to do?

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Let’s take a deep breath. We’re going to get through this, together. And before we get too far down our kids’ back-to-school list, here is the rundown on what some schools are doing before their doors reopen to welcome our children back. Here’s a hint: You might breathe a bit easier when you see those plans. I did.

School’s out?

In mid-March, schools across the United States closed their doors for what was initially thought to be a few weeks to slow the spread of the coronavirus. As positive cases and tragic deaths swept the nation, days turned to months. Now plans to reopen schools in the fall are being tossed around to the dismay of many parents – and to the relief of others – who are seeing a continued surge in cases.

But with many schools being encouraged to open at the behest of President Donald Trump, they’ve come up with creative solutions to safely comply with ever-changing rules. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s MI Safe Schools: Michigan’s 2020-21 Return to School Roadmap, released in late June, is a 63-page plan that lays out the steps for going back to school based on the status of the pandemic geographically in the state.

Highlights of the plan include tentative options such as full-time, in-person learning, remote learning, hybrid learning, social distance recommendations and more. Also of note: Students kindergarten through fifth grade are not required to wear a mask (unless they are away from their desks) in school. Students sixth through 12th grade are required to wear masks.

“We will continue to put safety first, leveraging science, data and public health evidence to inform the decisions we make to serve each and every student in Michigan well,” Whitmer writes in the plan’s introductory letter.

Some other Roadmap highlights:

• Staff and teachers are required to always wear face masks.

• It is recommended that student desks are stationed six feet apart.

• The plan recommends that most meals be served inside the classroom or outdoors, along with staggered mealtimes and social distancing in the cafeteria if it’s in use.

• Indoor assemblies with students from multiple classrooms would not be allowed.

• Schools would need to work with local health departments on screening protocols.

Medical intervention

Denise Fair, the Detroit Health Department’s chief public health officer, says her department is working with schools on their reopening plan. “Since the beginning of the pandemic, the DHD has collaborated with Detroit Public Schools Community District to ensure students’ safety.

“More recently, I was tapped to chair a public health work group as part of the state’s Safe Start Plan for reopening schools,” Fair says, adding that the work group is part of Whitmer’s COVID-19 Return to Learn Advisory Council, created to ensure a smooth and safe transition back to school. “As chair of the work group, the health department will certainly be involved in decisions to ensure students’ and educators’ safe return to class.”

As far as health concerns, Fair says it’s important for parents and educators to know that individuals – including children – can be asymptomatic carriers. “Which means anyone including those who are immune-compromised are at risk, whether at home or school,” she says. “That’s why it’s important that parents have good information and choice and that appropriate protocols are in place to protect students and educators when they do return to school.”

She adds that she believes that Whitmer and DPSCD superintendent Nikolai Vitti have the students’ education and interests at the forefront in all they do. “We all are committed to ensuring that when students do return to school, they will be able to do so as safely as possible,” Fair says.

One educator’s plan

Randy Liepa, superintendent for the Wayne Regional Education Service Agency, which encompasses 32 school districts (including DPSCD) with a K-12 student population of 275,000 in Wayne County, says that the safety of students and staff is the most important factor.

Liepa says, “School districts are really focusing on safety measures they can put in place like social distancing in schools, wearing masks to make sure kids are safe in school, and that parents feel comfortable sending their kids back to school.” He says school districts are working with local health departments like the Wayne County Health Department to ensure a safe and successful school year.

He encourages parents to visit their children’s school district websites for regular updates, and Wayne RESA plans to communicate with parents on more finalized fall plans in early August. Liepa says he thinks school districts have a strong preference to have students in school as much as possible. But they are also preparing for some parents who won’t want to send their kids to school, and so there may be an online option.

Regardless of all the safety protocols in place, reopening will depend on how Michigan is doing with regard COVID-19 cases. “Schools are going to really listen to what the governor says and look to what the trends are in the state, and be very nimble to be able to change their plans if they need to,” he says. “Parents ought to be – as much as they can be – prepared for changes in the school year.”

Liepa says that given heightened racial tensions in the country, inequality is on the minds of proactive officials. “They are always reviewing where they are at in regards to making sure that (schools) have a friendly, welcoming environment,” he says, adding that districts are even more aware and concerned about the issue. “When we talk about safe environments for students, it’s about having students being treated appropriately in school, also.”

A mother’s moment

Robyn Wilson, a 30-something Southfield mother of two, says that she’s raising her Black daughters (20 months and 7 years) to know as much as she thinks they need to know about race in America, proceeding with caution. Wilson recalls painful racist experiences growing up and is helping her children be prepared in more ways than one, especially with her eldest when it comes to going back to school.

Wilson says at the end of this past school year, she and her daughter were talking about an assignment where the students had to write about white and black cars, and how the white cars wouldn’t let the black one cross a bridge – as a way to broach the issue of racism.

“Her school is teaching them about discrimination in a way that they would understand, so that kind of initiated the conversation with us,” Wilson says. In this tense racial climate, she appreciated the gesture. “It was the first time we had any conversation about it. I don’t know how to talk to a 7-year-old about this. But she is as prepared as I think I want her to be – I don’t want to scare her.”

Wilson says her daughter’s metro Detroit charter school is discussing safety options for returning. From smaller class sizes to virtual learning, she says that it will be difficult for her daughter not to share crayons with her friends or hug them when they return to a school she’s been at for over four years.

“You can’t make 7-year-olds wear masks all day. I would be more comfortable with her probably not going back to school and doing online learning if that is an option,” Wilson says. “We will see when the fall comes.” 

Sherri Kolade is a metro Detroit-based freelance writer.

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