News Story

Ann Arbor Parents And Some Medics See Union Behind School District's Refusal To Open

District’s response to online learning failures is to eliminate D and F grades

A group of local parents and health care professionals is calling on Ann Arbor Public Schools to establish a realistic plan to return students to some form of in-school instruction. In doing so, they cite concerns about serious learning deficits and psychological harm resulting from the district’s adherence to online classes only as a means to combat COVID-19.

The group Ann Arbor Reasonable Return, A2R2, says a growing body of evidence indicates that in-school learning poses little risk to either students (especially younger ones) or staff, and that the damage from virtual-only instruction is real and growing.

Separately, their pleas were amplified by a statement last month from 130 Ann Arbor area pediatricians and other medical professionals that declared: “Each additional day that passes without kids in school inflicts harm that will persist well beyond the pandemic.”

Members of the A2R2 group said they believe the district’s implacability stems in part from opposition to reopening by the teachers union, the Ann Arbor Education Association. On its Facebook page, the union warned repeatedly about the health perils of reopening. In July, it said schools should remain closed until no new cases of COVID are reported in all of Washtenaw County for 14 consecutive days. Bishop said that’s an unrealistic goal, unrelated to the risks, and something that could take years to achieve.

Ann Arbor Public Schools Superintendent Jeanice Swift and members of the Board of Education have so far rebuffed the calls for reopening. They cite increasing COVID case rates in Ann Arbor and elsewhere.

In a statement posted last week on the district’s website, Swift said: “I recognize that many students, parents and families are weary of the pandemic and exhausted with virtual learning. We look forward to a day before too long when we can confidently implement our in-school re-opening plans.”

But, she added, “an immediate return to in-school learning is not advisable.”

Kathy Bishop, mother of two Ann Arbor Public Schools students and a health care professional who sits on the advisory board of A2R2, said the district’s response continues a pattern of deflection and delay.

“They keep moving the goalposts,” Bishop said. No one has suggested that schools be reopened immediately or completely, she said. Or that students and parents should not be able to retain the option of virtual-only learning.

Another parent and co-founder of A2R2, Lena Kauffman, said: “We want a risk balanced approach. It doesn’t mean that everyone goes back. But (the evidence) is clear that kids are safe in school.”

Meanwhile, evidence is growing that virtual-only education is having disastrous effects on learning for some students. In their statement, the Ann Arbor physicians cited a recent report from Fairfax County, Virginia, which found “an 83% increase in F grades. Those students with disabilities, who were economically disadvantaged or who did not speak English as their first language were among those who suffered most.”

Principals at middle and high schools in the Ann Arbor district announced last week that schools would not issue D or F grades, Bishop said.

The district is also expected to release information at today’s board meeting on enrollment. Bishop said she believes the information will reveal significant declines from students who have either dropped out or enrolled in other districts which offer some form of in-person learning.

Swift has argued that the district’s virtual-only model is being followed by most of the state’s largest school districts. But a survey commissioned by the state Department of Education in November found that 77% of Michigan districts were offering at least limited in-person instruction. Only 14% (enrolling about 16% of all students) were relying exclusively on virtual learning.

Ann Arbor itself conducted an online survey in June after offering online learning only for several months. It found that 40% of parents were dissatisfied with the virtual education experience, and 43% said student engagement in their households had diminished over time.

Sixty-four percent said they were certain or likely to participate in a plan to “return to school if public health experts believe it is safe.”

Ann Arbor Public Schools did not respond to a request for comment on the issues raised by A2R2 or the physicians group.

Kauffman said A2R2 plans to submit a petition, signed by nearly 500 Ann Arbor parents and residents, to the school board this week, urging that the district:

● Establish a commission of experts to evaluate COVID-related school risks and make recommendations.

● Give special needs students the option to resume in-person education.

● Increase reporting on student health and achievement.

● Publish a plan on the time, terms and conditions for resuming some form of in-person learning.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.