Parents call for schools to reopen at rally in downtown Ann Arbor

Members of parent group Ann Arbor Reasonable Return hold a banner at a rally demanding the return of hybrid learning in downtown Ann Arbor on Jan. 30, 2021. (Meredith Bruckner)

ANN ARBOR – Parent group Ann Arbor Reasonable Return rallied outside the downtown post office on Saturday afternoon to demand that Ann Arbor Public Schools reopen by March 1 -- Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s goal date for Michigan public schools to return to in-person learning.

Ann Arbor Public Schools have been closed since the coronavirus pandemic began in March. The district is the only school system in Washtenaw County and one of few in the state that has remained virtual for almost a year.

A2R2 has been critical of Ann Arbor Public Schools’ metrics to determine when it is safe to allow students back in its buildings, saying the numbers are virtually impossible to meet.

Parents and children hold signs at a rally calling to reopen Ann Arbor Public Schools in downtown Ann Arbor on Jan. 30, 2021. (Meredith Bruckner)

“Their metrics have not aged well,” said A2R2 co-founder Lena Kauffman. “We are concerned that they haven’t updated those metrics since the beginning of the year -- even with new evidence.”

In her most recent message to the AAPS community on Jan. 27, Superintendent Dr. Jeanice Kerr Swift announced that the district will continue with virtual learning considering the emergence of the new, highly contagious B.1.1.7 COVID-19 variant in the area, Washtenaw County’s status as “Level E” -- the highest level according to the MI Safe Start Map and a lag in the vaccination of teachers against COVID-19 due to low vaccine supply.

“We will continue to hold the health and safety of our staff and students as our top priority,” Swift wrote. “This commitment will not change. At this time, we will continue in a virtual learning instructional model in the AAPS as we have since last fall. There will not be an announcement of an upcoming transition to open in-school hybrid learning at this current time.”

Parents demonstrate to open schools in Ann Arbor.

Posted by All About Ann Arbor on Saturday, January 30, 2021

A2R2 members include physicians, pediatricians and psychologists, who argue that with proper mitigation protocols in place, schools can reopen safely.

Alan Simpson-Vlach is a teacher who works in Oakland County at a school that has been open most of the year. He goes to school to teach his students in person every day while his children in the Ann Arbor Public Schools stay home to learn virtually.

“My wife works from home and she has to manage their at-home schooling, so she’s trying to do her full-time job and trying to be the computer-minder and the teacher’s assistant,” said Simpson-Vlach. “It’s really, really challenging.”

He said that his school has been in session with a low number of COVID cases throughout the year, and has found ways to keep the students socially distanced and keep the older building well ventilated by opening windows and turning on fans even in cold temperatures.

“We keep the desks apart and we’re constantly hounding them to stay apart from each other in the hall, but they do it,” he said. “And they wear their masks. They wear them all day long.”

Alan Simpson-Vlach with his wife, Rita, and daughter Marguerite at a rally to reopen Ann Arbor Public Schools on Jan. 30, 2021. (Meredith Bruckner)

His daughter, fourth-grader Marguerite, said the isolation of learning from home has been challenging.

“I miss talking to my friends and being able to see my teacher,” she said.

His son Andrew, a seventh-grader, said that topics like math are particularly challenging to learn through a screen and that he becomes easily distracted while learning virtually.

“Right here in town, private schools have been safely open since the start of the school year,” said Kauffman. “Families with means who are finding that virtual is not working for them are opting into private schools.

“There’s an equity issue here. By not offering a choice, it’s not like they’re restricting all students from getting education that want it; they’re just restricting families in the community with the least means.”

Looking ahead, organizers said they might hold more rallies in the future to continue to put pressure on the district.

About the Author:

Meredith has worked for WDIV since August 2017 and was voted one of Washtenaw County's best journalists in 2019 by eCurrent's readers. She covers the community of Ann Arbor and has a Master's degree in International Broadcast Journalism from City University London, UK.