Traverse City News and Events

TCAPS Schools To Reopen For Face-To-Face Instruction Monday

By Beth Milligan | Sept. 15, 2020

Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) board members voted Monday to return to face-to-face instruction starting next week – a decision that followed extensive meeting debate and hundreds of calls and emails flooding in from parents and teachers both supporting and opposing the move.

TCAPS trustees voted 6-1 to resume in-person instruction starting Monday, September 21. Board Vice President Jeff Leonhardt was the sole 'no' vote. Students – who all began the school year virtually on September 8 and will finish out the rest of this week online – have the choice to come back to school starting Monday or finish out the rest of the semester virtually. More than 1,000 students, or roughly 10 percent of the district’s student population, have already opted into one of two virtual education options offered for the semester.

Board trustees upheld a recommendation to return to school by Superintendent Dr. John VanWagoner, who acknowledged TCAPS does not have the resources to implement all safety protocols – such as mandating social distancing in classrooms – but said staff are “doing everything we can with the resources we have.” That includes requiring masks in buses and school buildings, asking parents to screen students daily for coronavirus symptoms, installing MERV 13 filters in buildings, and pulling in outside air instead of recirculating air inside wherever possible.

“I wish and beg and plead and continue (to advocate) with our state legislators that we had the resources that our kids and our staff deserve,” said VanWagoner, pointing to inequities in per-pupil funding in Michigan he said hampered TCAPS. VanWagoner said teachers would be encouraged to take their classes outdoors or use hallways or other building space to spread out students whenever possible. He also said the district was looking at getting large “party tents” to use outside for lunches for secondary students. VanWagoner, who himself has four children enrolled in the district, called it a “tough” decision to return to school and said TCAPS was “leaving no stone unturned” in exploring space to socially distance students.

Board members also said they wrestled with the decision, balancing fears about the health risks of crowding into classrooms with concerns about the long-term educational and emotional impacts of students stuck behind screens – particularly in homes that lack Internet access or a non-working parent to provide learning support. Trustee Erica Moon Mohr said she’s heard the “desperation” of parents pleading to have their kids back in the classroom, adding that she believes Grand Traverse County has done a “great job” of containing coronavirus transmissions. “The reward should be that our kids get to go back to school,” she said.

Board Secretary Pam Forton and Trustee Jane Klegman both admitted they might choose virtual instruction as parents, but said as board members they needed to consider the science and support a return to face-to-face learning. “Students do best when in a classroom with a teacher,” said Forton, noting she believes TCAPS administrators “have made every effort” to keep students and staff safe within the district’s parameters. Klegman acknowledged it was an unavoidable reality that TCAPS would likely experience COVID-19 cases. “Face-to-face learning during a pandemic poses risks,” she said. Board Treasurer Matt Anderson, meanwhile, said TCAPS was struggling to fulfill its mission with virtual-only instruction and said “there is no perfect plan” available to school districts.

“The virus is not going anyway anytime soon…we have to have the courage to move forward as a community, as a society,” he said. Anderson also said that surveys conducted of teachers and parents showed that “the clear majority want to return to in-person instruction.”

While numerous parents and teachers echoed those sentiments – both during public comment Monday and in hundreds of emails and calls to the board – many others worried TCAPS was not taking strong enough measures to protect students and staff. East Middle School teacher Jessica Unger said the district’s plan wasn’t safe “due to a lack of social distancing,” noting one of her classes will have 33 students and two teachers in one classroom. “How many people would feel safe spending that much time with that many people in such close quarters?” she said.

Susan Littlefield Dungjen, another teacher at East Middle School, agreed, saying that the prospect of nearly 1,000 kids passing each other in hallways every day was “pretty scary.” She added: “It’s going to be a real difficult thing to keep kids away from each other and then also be teaching at the same time.” West High School teacher David Richardson told board members that district “teachers are in a very dark space right now.”

As the sole board 'no' vote, Leonhardt also had deep concerns about returning to face-to-face instruction. While the ideal scenario for TCAPS is in-person learning, he said, “It needs to be done safely. That’s the key.” Leonhardt said he didn’t think the board’s vote was an educational decision but rather a health decision – one that could have ramifications for the entire community. “I feel extremely disheartened that we may be deciding to put students, staff, families, and our community at risk based on financial reasons or what people want,” he said. “The lives and health of people should be our number one priority…this is a decision far beyond what a school board member should have to make.”

Administrators noted that students aren’t mandated to return to face-to-face learning Monday. Families can still enroll virtually for the semester in UpNorth Virtual On Demand through September 28. That program uses pre-recorded educational lessons from non-TCAPS instructors via a national learning platform – with a TCAPS instructor assigned to each student to serve as a “mentor” and monitor the student’s progress. Associate Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Shaina Biller shared an “Extended COVID-19 Learning Plan” – required by the state – with board members Monday, which outlines the educational support the district will provide to both virtual and in-person students. Among those commitments are providing students who lack Internet access with hot spots or other technical solutions to get online, ensuring that all students – including special education, career/tech, AP, ESL, and dual enrolled students – have equitable access to learning opportunities during the pandemic, and mandating regular “two-way” communications between students and teachers to ensure virtual students stay engaged and connected to the district.

Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed a quote to David Kenny instead of David Richardson. The story has been updated above to correct the error.

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