While the 2020-2021 school year will look different for children across the country, Ypsilanti Community Schools (YCS) will offer three different instruction models to fit parents' and students' varying needs and safety concerns.
YCS Superintendent Alena Zachery-Ross notes that while the entire district only has about 600 staff members, nearly 100 volunteered to be on the district's back-to-school safety task force, which started in May. That group has considered guidelines from the CDC, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's school reopening safety plan, and what other districts are planning. Zachery-Ross also drew feedback from a parent advisory council.
"All our building principals and administrators worked throughout the summer and gave up their July time off to provide input on the models," she says.
YCS offered parents an online survey, taking their needs into account as staff assign each student to one of three different educational models the district will use this fall. The first is traditional face-to-face instruction with classroom limits of 15 pupils. Students in kindergarten through fifth grade will meet four days per week in person with one day per week of remote learning, while grades six through 12 will meet two days per week in person with three days of remote learning. Not all school buildings will be open and pupils may attend a school that is not their normal neighborhood school.
The second model is remote, with students taking home a Chromebook or iPad to start the year with online instruction. These students will sometimes receive instruction as a group, and at other times they will work independently on their devices. When administrators decide it's safe to go back to in-person learning, those students will transition back to a school building.
The third option is 100% online instruction for the entire school year.
Zachery-Ross says the district wanted to offer some type of in-person instruction for the most vulnerable pupils, whether they are experiencing homelessness or domestic violence or falling behind in academics by more than one grade level.
"Also, on the other extreme, if you are a person who just knows, either because of a compromised immune system or other concerns, … that you do not want your child to enter into a school this year before there's a vaccine, we wanted to give that fully online option for those parents," she says.
The district will make a decision Nov. 5 about when and if remote learning students will transition back to in-person instruction.
"The rationale for that date is that it's the end of the first quarter, and we know teachers need to plan and parents need to have a schedule they can count on," Zachery-Ross says.
While pupils are working remotely from home, they'll have help from a tech support team that can be reached by email or phone, says Jerilyn Lynn, technology resource specialist for the district. Tech support will also be on site at YCS buildings in case parents have to exchange a defective device in person.
Lynn notes that all students will have access to free wifi at least through the end of December, and the district is working on extending that through the end of the school year. Homeless students are also eligible to receive a wifi hotspot.
The tech support team will also help teachers with new technology challenges. A survey in the spring assessed staff's technological literacy and what their needs were.
"We worked closely with the curriculum department and have had a professional development committee that we work closely with," Lynn says. "We try to do a lot of professional development that involves giving them ideas and showing them how to do things, and making the technology more user-friendly."
District staff are aiming to customize plans to age level and different building layouts while providing the same quality and content of education to all students. To that end, they've developed a parent-student handbook on returning to school safely. All schools serving pre-kindergarten through fifth grade will use the same handbook, and another handbook is in the works for students in the higher grades.
Cory Gildersleeve, principal at Ypsilanti Community High School, notes that high school staff will focus on assessments to see where students are academically and find ways to "close the gaps." Staff will also focus on project-based learning that will tie lessons from math and science, as well as language arts and social studies, together for students.
"There are differences in building layout and facility components, but it's all based on the same safety protocols," says Kelly Mickel, principal of Erickson Elementary School. "We need to stay consistent because safety is the most important piece."
Cassandra Sheriff, principal of Ypsilanti International Elementary School, also emphasizes consistency, saying that staff want to ensure that curriculum is consistent and that all students are "receiving the same content."
"In our professional development sessions, we've been talking about what is high-quality instruction, what does that look like online, [and] what does that mean for students?" she says. "We want to continue to give families the best."
Sheriff notes that staff are also trying to figure out how to provide all the extracurricular activities children are used to, including the Leader in Me program and the district's highly-regarded robotics program.
Another challenge will be building relationships during remote learning, says Turquoise Neal, principal at Ypsilanti Community Middle School.
"Middle school students require those relationships, because they're trying to find out who they are and who they want to be," she says. "With face-to-face, we can do that with ease, but as we come back virtually, we need to make sure students are still connected and that we support students academically and with their social-emotional growth and wellbeing."
Additionally, YCS staff are considering how to continue their practice of ensuring free breakfast and lunch for every student. Students who opt for in-person learning will continue to get free lunches and breakfast, while some type of meal pickup program will continue for those learning remotely. Zachery-Ross says the details of the pickup program are still being worked out.
Daniel Young, the new principal at Ford Early Learning Center, says he appreciates that there's been "a good amount of work done at the district level in order to prepare each building."
"Each school will have their own nuances, but you're not going to find any students out of alignment with the overall vision of the district, and that's a great thing to have," he says. Using a musical metaphor, Young says students and school buildings might each be playing a separate instrument, but they'll be doing so in alignment as "one band, one sound."
Gildersleeve says he appreciates the way all stakeholders have been included in the process of deciding on a back-to-school plan, and the collaborative spirit among administrators, staff, and community members.
"When we get back to whatever normal we establish, I think we'll be a better school district from the work we're doing now," he says.
Parents are encouraged to watch the school's website for important updates. They can also sign up for the YCS news and events mailing list here.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos courtesy of YCS.