This school year was supposed to be normal.
Parents across Michigan have repeated that over and over in the past month, as if to change the existing back-to-school reality.
The truth is more tangled. A more infectious variant of the coronavirus, a lack of vaccinations available for children under 12, and anecdotal outbreak stories from states already back in school have contributed to escalated anxiety about sending children in this state back to classrooms. Planning once again involves “mitigation strategies,” like universal indoor mask mandates and fights over implementing them.
What’s held for many families, in contrast to last year, is the determination to return in-person. School leaders say they know more about the spread of COVID-19 this time around. Parents say their children are in dire need of academic and emotional intervention.
“I just feel unstable in my thoughts and my position because … for the most part we need to be in-person, but at the same time I’m concerned about safety and health,” said Arlyssa Heard, the mother of a Detroit high school student and parent organizer with 482Forward, a nonprofit that organizes around neighborhood schools.
Last week in Detroit, parents, grandparents, toddlers, tweens and teens sat in their cars in a line snaking down Michigan Avenue.
At the end of the line was the promise of donated school supplies and Domino’s pizza: Backpacks in flowery patterns and green camouflage, loaded with boxes of crayons, stacks of loose-leaf paper, and empty pencil cases, the backpacks ready to be carted from home to school for 180 days over the next academic year. The pizza, fuel for the final days of the summer.
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Families waiting to pick up the supplies had a lot on their minds.
Sparkle Perry waited so her three kids would be stocked up on folders and crayons and ready to start fresh, shaking away the detritus from a long year in virtual school.
Her oldest son, attending middle school at University Prep, floundered trying to learn in front of his laptop in the previous school year, particularly in math and science.
“He struggled, just not having that social aspect,” she said. “It just wasn’t for him.”
What the return to school will look like
A few schools have already started. Some students returned to class Monday. More schools start next week after Labor Day. What schools look like on the first day depends on the districts and the counties they are in.
Some districts on their own have mask mandates. Others have made masks optional.
And some have no choice, depending on the county. These Michigan counties have instituted universal mask mandates or partial mask mandates for all schools in their jurisdiction:
- Wayne County
- Oakland County
- Ottawa County
- Kent County
- Allegan County
- Kalamazoo County
- Genesee County
Schools without mandates have similarly used language calling masks not required but “strongly recommended.” Utica Community Schools, with more than 25,000 students, is a mask-optional district.
Lisa Harden, the mother of two children who attend Utica schools, said the lack of a mandate has put her family in an uncomfortable position because she has asthma, a condition she worries could be worsened by COVID-19. Her kids will wear masks to school, but she doesn’t want the face coverings to lead to ridicule in the classroom.
“They’re nervous they’re going to get made fun of and you know that’s a huge thing at that age,” she said.
Schools and counties with mandates face blowback, too. Leslie Papastefanou, a mother of two from Highland Township, said last week during a protest of Oakland County’s recent mask mandate that face coverings have left her children discouraged.
“It has crushed my children’s spirit, and it might sound trivial to others, but this is my, my children’s mental health,” she said.
It’s also unclear what schools will do if case numbers continue to rise through the fall.
Bob McCann, executive director of the K-12 Alliance of Michigan, said laws instituted through the pandemic allowing schools the flexibility to switch to virtual learning in times of high COVID-19 transmission have expired. That means schools risk losing a portion of funding from the state if they don’t get a special waiver from the state allowing a switch to virtual or hybrid schooling.
“There’s a real question mark right now as to whether a school could even offer remote learning,” he said.
That could be a problem if the virus proliferates, McCann said, and an escalation in cases leads to school closures, which has happened in isolated instances in a smattering of states, including Kansas and Texas.
Emotional and academic recovery
Heard’s son will be a sophomore at The School at Marygrove in the Detroit Public Schools Community District. He started his high school years “smack dab” in the middle of the pandemic, she said, and trying to stay on track has been challenging.
Sports, and football in particular, have really rooted him emotionally, she said. And she feels relieved that the school has come up with a plan to get students back on track, focusing on addressing students emotionally before academics.
That will entail mental health activities and getting students used to the building before starting anything else.
“They’re going to ease into academics,” she said.
Josha Talison, superintendent with Ecorse Public Schools, has spent the summer carefully planning the next year. The Delta variant has complicated planning, but he expects most Ecorse students to show up in person this year, though the district is still offering an online program.
Talison said he feels a lot better this year, more in control, than he did in March 2020, when the pandemic first closed schools.
“It was really taxing for myself and my colleagues around the state,” he said. “But you have to always put on the gladiator armor because you had to be the leader.”
Season marked by anger
In Birmingham, a man in a crowd at a school board meeting gave a Nazi salute as anger over masks boiled over.
In Genesee County, health officials confirmed they’d received death threats after instituting a school mask mandate.
In Ottawa County, at a school board meeting, a man reportedly yelled at board members, saying in a video posted to Twitter by a Vox journalist, “There’s lot of good guys out there ready to do bad things soon.”
In a press release on Friday, Linda Vail, Ingham County chief medical officer, decried the threats made to Genesee County officials.
“This is just the latest in a growing list of threats, intimidation and brazen efforts to muzzle public health experts across Michigan,” she said.
McCann said some of the uncertainty over mask mandates has fueled the rancor on local levels. While superintendents have been asking county health officials to help them make these decisions, the districts have not always received clear directives.
But, he said, everyone who works at schools is trying to find their way back to normal.
“These kids just want a normal school year as possible,” McCann said. “And that’s what I can assure you every school board and every superintendent is trying to figure out how to give them.”
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