ANN ARBOR – Dozens of students and parents stood outside Skyline High School holding signs and giving speeches on Saturday, calling for the Ann Arbor Board of Education to continue with their original plans to return to school buildings beginning in March.
In a surprise move, the School Board voted 5-2 in favor of a motion Wednesday to direct Superintendent Jeanice Kerr Swift to propose that school for the majority of students in the district will remain virtual until the end of the school year. The Board will vote on her recommendation at this week’s upcoming meeting.
After considerable backlash from the community, Ann Arbor Public Schools released a statement on the motion on Friday evening.
“The Board apologizes for any confusion this vote on Wednesday may have caused our community during an already stress-filled school year due to the pandemic,” read the statement. “To be clear, we have not decided to remain in fully virtual instruction for the remainder of the year.”
Organized by seniors at Skyline, the hour-long protest was the first time many of the students saw their peers since the schools closed in March.
“The School Board has been making all these promises and then out of nowhere they say that none of that was true,” said Skyline senior Grace Hescheles. “I’ve definitely noticed that a lot of kids in my grade, a lot of kids in every grade in high school, have been really struggling with the online plan. It’s taken huge hits on people’s mental health.”
Hescheles said she feels like she hasn’t learned anything in the virtual classroom.
“It’s not working,” she said. “No one can absorb any information like this. We need to at least have a choice to go back.”
“I think our teachers have done the best they can to make it work, but it’s just not working for students,” echoed senior at Skyline Eli Hendricks.
“We’re not meant to be online on Zoom classes for eight hours a day. Students really need to be in schools. Grades, mental health -- they’re all suffering. Ann Arbor Public Schools was very involved with the health and safety of the community when the pandemic started, and I think we should hold them accountable and make sure they’re still concerned about it now.”
The classmates said they also don’t feel prepared for college and said that Skyline held only one assembly on how to apply for college, which they felt wasn’t enough.
Mother of a senior and longtime volunteer in the Ann Arbor Public Schools, Carrie Letke, criticized the School Board’s back-to-school plan.
“We don’t even have a plan,” said Letke. “And every time I’ve spoken with Jeanice Swift – she’s only replied to two of my emails – it’s been, ‘We’re not sure,’ or, ‘We’re working on it.’ There have never been definitive answers. We deserve answers. I never thought I would hear my son say, ‘I want to go to school.’ He’s missed his entire senior year. Let’s at least give them something to look forward to for these next few months.”
In her update to the AAPS community on Jan. 29, Swift said several factors, including Washtenaw County’s high risk level on the MI Safe Start Map, the presence of the COVID-19 B.1.1.7 variant in the community and a slow rollout of vaccines for teachers were areas of concern when considering reopening school buildings.
Swift will present a recommendation to continue virtual schooling for the remainder of the year for all students except for those with the greatest needs at Wednesday’s Board of Education meeting.