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Educators, parents struggle with what they don't know about school amid COVID-19

Lansing State Journal logo Lansing State Journal 7/24/2020 Rachel Greco, Lansing State Journal
a man sitting at a table using a laptop: Paul Murphy, a teacher at Mason Public Schools, pictured at his home in Mason, Tuesday, July 21, 2020. © Matthew Dae Smith Paul Murphy, a teacher at Mason Public Schools, pictured at his home in Mason, Tuesday, July 21, 2020.

Thanks to a district-wide survey, Bill DeFrance knows 80% of families with children at Eaton Rapids Public Schools want them back in a classroom when the school year starts Aug. 31. 

He's also convinced it isn't possible to social distance within the district's buildings this fall if most of its 2,500 students and 200 staff members come back for in-person instruction.

a man is using his cell phone: Bill DeFrance, superintendent of Eaton Rapids Public Schools, talks with teachers and staff about the upcoming school year on Tuesday, July 21, 2020, at the high school football stadium in Eaton Rapids where they held a social distanced meeting. © Nick King/Lansing State Journal Bill DeFrance, superintendent of Eaton Rapids Public Schools, talks with teachers and staff about the upcoming school year on Tuesday, July 21, 2020, at the high school football stadium in Eaton Rapids where they held a social distanced meeting.

That and so many unknowns make navigating the creation of a back-to-school plan during the COVID-19 pandemic a bit of "a mess," said DeFrance, the district's superintendent.

"There’s no right answer here for anybody," he said. "I would love to be able to look you in the eye and say ‘Hey working parents, we’re going to be able to handle the kids five days a week,' but we’re just not built for that here."

Eaton Rapids school administrators are working with the Barry Eaton District Health Department to determine what a safe in-person school day looks like amid a pandemic, DeFrance said.

"Two of their experts came out and walked every building, looking at everything from air flow to rooms where we might have to isolate kids," he said.

What's likely, DeFrance said, is that students who plan to attend in-person classes will be split into two groups that each attend classes in their buildings for a few days a week. The remainder of their instruction will happen virtually. That will allow staff to better ensure social distancing happens, he said.

"We really are trying to respect what parents want to do," DeFrance said. 

But he has concerns.

"We don’t control the health environment all the time for kids, and we don’t know where parents go and where kids go when they aren’t at school," DeFrance said. "We really lose control on intake when you think about that."

It's possible there will be students and staff members who contract COVID-19 or bring it into school buildings, DeFrance said. 

"I think everybody, including me, feels that we’re going to have some incidents of this."

With the start of the school year just weeks away, Lansing School District and Waverly Community Schools announced plans to educate students entirely online for at least the first few months. Several other school districts haven't yet announced their plans.

Everyone tasked with figuring out just how students will go back to school in Greater Lansing this fall has skin in the game, DeFrance said, and he's no exception. He's over 60, which means he's more at risk for developing life-threatening symptoms if he contracts the coronavirus. He's also the parent of a daughter with asthma who teaches at Eaton Rapids schools.

"I’ve got conflicts every way from Sunday," he said.

Teachers and parents do too.

Teachers have questions, concerns

If the blended-learning plan DeFrance says is in the works becomes reality, Sara Gooley will have to do something she doesn't think is safe right now — go back to Eaton Rapids Public Schools, where she works as a special education teacher consultant.

"I just think there are so many unknowns at this point," Gooley said. "We have older staff members and staff who are immune compromised or who live with people who are immune compromised. It’s nerve wracking thinking about going back to school with that many people in one place."

Gooley, a single parent with a 15-year-old daughter, works two jobs. She's a part-time trivia host for a D.J. service when she isn't consulting with teachers and families in Eaton Rapids.

Her job with the school district is her liveliood, Gooley said, but the risk she and others will take if they go back into school buildings weighs on her.

"If something happens to me I’m very nervous about what that can do to my daughter and my family."

Jeanie and Paul Murphy can't opt not to go back to work either.

"Most teachers just aren’t in a position to do that, unless you’re close to retirement," Paul Murphy, who teaches fourth grade, said. 

The Murphys are both teachers at Mason Public Schools, where Paul Murphy says plans for a mix of in-person and online instruction are being considered by the district, though they've made no final decision about what school will look like yet.

The Murphys' daughter Delaney will be a freshman at Mason High School this fall. If they go back to their classrooms, Paul Murphy said she might as well go back to hers.

"If one of us goes to school to teach we might as well all go," he said.

If that happens their family plans to keep their distance from Paul Murphy's parents who live five minutes away.

"We’ve already kind of told them, 'Well, if we are going back we won’t see you for a few months,'" he said.

Gooley plans to take the same approach with her mother, a cancer survivor, if she returns to school buildings.

"Since I don’t know what students are doing outside of the building I feel like I should be limiting what I’m doing outside the classroom more," she said. "I would feel terrible, awful if I got her sick."

Paul Murphy said making sure fewer students are in school buildings at any given time is better than sending them all back at once but it isn't his first choice.

"I think we should start the year like Lansing is, remotely," he said. 

If he contracts COVID-19 will his students have to quarantine themselves too, Murphy asks, and if not who will take his place in the classroom?

"You look at the bus, the lunch room,” he said. “It’s just hard to see how this doesn’t turn into a disaster within a month. Every day is a potential snow day."

Jeanie Murphy prefers teaching in a classroom to online instruction but she's anxious about going back to a school building.

"I’m a little nervous," she said. "It will be good to be back in the classroom. However, with all the precautions, it’s not going to feel normal."

If a teacher tests positive for COVID-19 will they be out of work, Jeanie Murphy wonders?

"The guidelines they’ve (school districts) been given haven’t been very clear," she said.

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Safety a factor for parents

Marney Turner's son Henry, a sixth grader, does better learning in the classroom than he does online. When schools closed in mid-March her family struggled with the online instruction he finished the year with.

But Turner, who lives in Delta Township, said even so it was a relief when Waverly schools this week announced plans to start the year with online instruction.

a man and a woman sitting on a table: Chris Rupp, director of curriculum at Eaton Rapids Public Schools, right, talks with teachers and staff about the upcoming school year on Tuesday, July 21, 2020, at the fhigh school football stadium in Eaton Rapids. © Nick King/Lansing State Journal Chris Rupp, director of curriculum at Eaton Rapids Public Schools, right, talks with teachers and staff about the upcoming school year on Tuesday, July 21, 2020, at the fhigh school football stadium in Eaton Rapids.

Face-to-face learning isn't safe right now, she said.

"This virus is six months old," Turner said. "They don’t know anything about it. It seems crazy to jump the gun and risk the health and well being of all these children. There’s no way we’ll get through a school year without one of these schools having to close down."

Turner knew even before Waverly schools announced its plan that she and her husband wouldn't send Henry to a classroom this fall. They both have flexible jobs, she said, and can manage assisting with his instruction.

"For us, if they came back and said kids are going back full time with no other options we'd need to find something else because we’re not doing that," Turner said.

Neither will Tashmica Torok's family. Her three children, ages 12, 14 and 17, attended Lansing schools last school year.

This year all three will home school. Torok, executive director of a local nonprofit, The Firecracker Foundation, started researching the option when the pandemic arrived in Michigan. 

Lansing schools online approach to the start of the school year comes with its own set of challenges, Torok said. Expecting her children to sit in front of a screen for several hours each school day is "overwhelming."

Instead, the Toroks plan to let their children's individual interests guide their own education plan this year, a form of home education known as"unschooling."

"I thought, 'Okay. We can make some different decisions for our family based on what we want to do in the moment," Torok said. 

The Toroks plan to utilize free online math and other education sites this school year, along with help from friends and community members in teaching their kids.

Torok said her children have already started reading books and engaging in hands-on learning, like making tea with herbs from their garden. She doesn't know if home school is a long-term solution to the uncertainty that surrounds education right now, but it's worth trying, she said.

"This is a year," Torok said. "I can do this for a year. I can commit to my kids for this school year.  This is a decision that we’ve made as the best thing for this moment."

While some parents can make online or home school work, others say it isn't an option for them.

Sarah Palacios, 37, said her 13-year-old son, a freshman at Grand Ledge High School with severe learning disabilities, won't succeed if he isn't in a classroom.

In March when Grand Ledge schools and other school districts throughout Michigan closed their buildings and began offering online instruction he struggled, and there wasn't much in the way of supports in place to help him.

Her family struggled with internet access too. Their apartment complex offers one service and she can't afford the monthly fee.

"If he had been given letter grades he would have received F's across the board despite giving his best effort," Palacios said.

Her son struggled to understand assignment instructions, she said, and needed the support he normally got in a classroom setting.

In mid-July Grand Ledge schools communicated to parents that it would likely offer two options for its students this fall — online or in-person instruction, Palacios said. Families have until early August to choose one.

Though she isn't sure if the school district will settle on that approach, Palacios said she'll choose in-person learning for her son because she wants him to succeed.

"For him to benefit academically we don't have a choice," she said. "I'm worried about it (COVID-19) but at the same time, this is the best choice at this point for us."

Contact Rachel Greco at (517) 528-2075 or rgreco@lsj.com. Follow her on Twitter @GrecoatLSJ.

This article originally appeared on Lansing State Journal: Educators, parents struggle with what they don't know about school amid COVID-19

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