Ann Arbor City Council members, mayor send letter to School Board urging a return to in-person learning

Courtesy: Ann Arbor Public Schools
Courtesy: Ann Arbor Public Schools

ANN ARBOR – In a rare move, Mayor Christopher Taylor and several members of City Council have sent a letter to the Ann Arbor Public Schools Board of Education urging them to stick to their plan of returning to a hybrid learning model.

The School Board will vote on Wednesday on a recommendation by Superintendent Dr. Jeanice Kerr Swift to keep schools virtual for the remainder of the academic year for the majority of students in the district.

The motion was brought forward in last Wednesday’s Board of Education meeting by trustee Susan Baskett.

“I want a decision for our community, whether they like it or not, that we’re remaining virtual, so they can go on and plan,” said Baskett.

There was considerable backlash to the announcement, and the School Board released a statement clarifying that they hadn’t yet voted to keep schools virtual.

Ann Arbor is the only district in Washtenaw County and one of few in the state that has not announced a firm date for students to return to school buildings.

The authors of Sunday’s letter include councilmembers Erica Briggs (D-Ward 5), Lisa Disch (D-Ward 1), Jen Eyer (D-Ward 4), Julie Grand (D-Ward 3), Travis Radina (D-Ward 3) and Linh Song (D-Ward 2).

In the letter addressed to School Board President Bryan Johnson, the authors acknowledged that it is not common practice for city officials to meddle in the School Board’s affairs, but said many community members are hurting and in despair as the coronavirus pandemic nears the one year mark.

“Ann Arbor students and families are stretched to the breaking point,” reads the letter. “As officials elected to govern the City of Ann Arbor rather than its schools, it is proper that we maintain our separate spheres, but that principle is not absolute. AAPS administration and trustees have occasionally spoken at City Council meetings on topics of particular interest.

“We have taken that commentary in good measure, as the exception that emphasizes the rule. We hope you will accept the following thoughts in that same vein, understanding that our views are our own and that no inference should be made as to the views of colleagues who have not co-signed nor certainly the City of Ann Arbor.”

The authors argued that not all homes are productive or safe learning environments, and the lack of in-person school has taken a toll on the mental health of local families.

They acknowledged that they have no knowledge of what it takes to run a school district and that the vaccine rollout for educators in Washtenaw County as part of Phase 1B has been slower than in other jurisdictions.

However, in light of recent events, they asked that the Board:

  • Confirm the Hybrid In-School Learning Plan and establish a target date of return.
  • As cases fall and vaccinations rise, accelerate opportunities for In-School Learning, particularly for young and struggling students.
  • Articulate the intended scope of the September return, now and with clarity. If the science shifts, or a virus variant changes everything, Ann Arbor will understand.

The authors acknowledged that some families may choose to keep their children home because they have found a way that works for their children to learn virtually, but they urged the Board to consider families disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

“The virus has harmed us all, but it has not harmed us in equal measure,” reads the letter. “For some, COVID has hit their families or communities too hard. We all know the heartbreaking and unjust disparity in loss suffered throughout BIPOC communities. These families and communities have our deepest sympathies.

“Many may not be ready to return, but other students and parents need the above steps and we believe that you can deliver safely and urge you to do so.”

Read the full letter below:

Dear President Johnson:

The community, the individuals who compose it and the bonds that tie us together, is hurting. Deeply. We all fear for our loved ones, our friends, ourselves. Loss is everywhere. Ann Arbor students and families are stretched to the breaking point. There is despair, both for today and for the future. Trust in government is tenuous at a time when unity to advance common purpose is most essential.

As officials elected to govern the City of Ann Arbor rather than its schools, it is proper that we maintain our separate spheres, but that principle is not absolute. AAPS administration and trustees have occasionally spoken at City Council meetings on topics of particular interest. We have taken that commentary in good measure, as the exception that emphasizes the rule. We hope you will accept the following thoughts in that same vein, understanding that our views are our own and that no inference should be made as to the views of colleagues who have not co-signed nor certainly the City of Ann Arbor.

As you know more than most, children and their families need safe schools. Teachers and staff need safe schools. COVID has emphasized the uncomfortable fact that homes are neither fully productive nor always safe learning environments. The extended absence of in-school learning harms the emotional and mental state of students and stresses already stressed families. These harms are universal, but they are compounded among homes with young students and community members who are resource-deprived or who have special needs.

Now, we at the City don’t have expertise in school operations. We are not K-12 teachers or doctors. We don’t supervise the more than 3000 dedicated AAPS staff or understand of their varied needs, medical, operational, or otherwise. We have a limited appreciation of AAPS physical infrastructure. We don’t know the first thing about providing thousands of nutritious meals a day, nor how to transport thousands of students safely and every day. We recognize that AAPS serves many more medically fragile and IEP students than most other districts. It is a vast and complex endeavor. We honor the difficulty of your task, even in the best of times.

We know that the supply of 1-B vaccines in Washtenaw – for educators, first responders, other essential workers – lags far behind most other jurisdictions. We are confident that this deficit has slowed the AAPS opening, despite your best efforts, and share in your advocacy to increase vaccine access to Ann Arbor and Washtenaw educators and other essential workers.

Bearing this in mind, and taking the measure of our constituents, we respectfully yet earnestly ask that the district:

* Confirm the Hybrid In-School Learning Plan and establish a target date of return.

* As cases fall and vaccinations rise, accelerate opportunities for In-School Learning, particularly for young and struggling students.

* Articulate the intended scope of the September return, now and with clarity. If the science shifts, or a virus variant changes everything, Ann Arbor will understand.

Not everyone will choose to send their children back to In-School learning this year. The virus has harmed us all, but it has not harmed us in equal measure. For some, COVID has hit their families or communities too hard. We all know the heartbreaking and unjust disparity in loss suffered throughout BIPOC communities. These families and communities have our deepest sympathies. For others, folks have found a way that works for now. Many may not be ready to return, but other students and parents need the above steps and we believe that you can deliver safely and urge you to do so.

The City of Ann Arbor and Ann Arbor Public Schools have a long and successful history of working together to promote our children’s education, community, and health. We are in the same boat. We serve the same community, and our fates are tied. As always, the City stands ready to assist. Many thanks to you and your colleagues for your service. Truly.

Sincerely,

Mayor Christopher Taylor

CM Erica Briggs

CM Lisa Disch

CM Jen Eyer

CM Julie Grand

CM Travis Radina

CM Linh Song

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