Superintendent's Update December 11, 2020
Response to Outreach and Superintendent's Update
Friday, December 11, 2020
In this Superintendent communication today, I am sharing both a response and an update on our AAPS progress during this 2020-21 COVID school year as well as next steps. We have provided headings and linked documents to serve readers in choosing to read only the summarized version or extend to read in more detail about a topic.
At Wednesday’s Board meeting, I wanted to ensure, given the significant number of comments shared at the outset of the meeting, that I had reviewed the written comments and could organize an appropriate response to address the patterns of the issues raised. I regret that some perceived this approach as a lack of care or concern regarding the remarks shared; this is not at all the case. The Trustees and I are always grateful for thoughtful input and feedback, and we take seriously the experiences shared by our parents and all stakeholders. The bulk of the statements referred to a recent letter, signed by multiple physicians, regarding the district’s COVID plan. We will address the stated concerns in the paragraphs below.
Our community members’ engagement in our schools is among the strongest assets of our Ann Arbor community. We appreciate contributions and thoughtful commentary from our AAPS students, parents, alumni, staff and community members during the Board of Education meetings and, importantly, from all who reach out in many ways; through email and various other regular district connections and community group meetings.
We understand this continues to be a very challenging time for everyone. We are grateful for the patience, understanding and hard work of our students and teachers, staff and leaders and our parents and community for all the diligent support of our students as we navigate this COVID time.
Returning Students and Staff to In-School Learning
We share a primary goal and a fundamental focus: we want our students, teachers and staff safely learning and growing together in our schools; this remains our priority for this 20-21 school year as we are safely, responsibly and sustainably able to do so.
No one understands better than our students, parents and educators the academic, social-emotional, mental health and other challenges inherent in virtual learning for many students and families. We understand this is particularly true for our youngest students and those at any age who are among the most vulnerable. We also know that all our students, staff, parents and families have experienced significant impact from this COVID time. We will need to plan for ongoing support and recovery in many areas moving forward over an extended time into the future.
Members of our AAPS team, including teachers, counselors, social workers, intervention specialists and all team members, are fully mobilized to ensure the ongoing support of our students in every way possible. This support has been in place and will continue virtually. When we are able, we will extend this support into the in-school setting. We recognize that the supports in a virtual environment, however robust, fall short of in-school learning.
Priority Return of Students with Specialized Learning Needs & Youngest Students
We have maintained in the design of our AAPS return plan the commitment to a priority return to in-school learning for our students who experience the greatest challenges in virtual learning; this includes our students with specialized learning needs at all levels and our youngest students. This commitment has not waivered. You may review the full plan for return here.
Current Decision on Return
At this current time, considering the exponential increase in COVID infections we are experiencing in Ann Arbor and across Michigan, characterized by high levels of community spread and high positivity rates, an immediate return to in-school learning is not advisable. We base this decision on evidence and in close consultation with the Washtenaw County Health Department. Any statements that the WCHD is not supportive of the AAPS approach are inherently false. We value our partnership and work closely with members of the WCHD team on a daily and weekly basis, and their expert public health guidance informs our decision-making at every step. . I have included significant additional information later in this message to clarify this topic further.
I recognize that many students, parents and families are weary of this pandemic and exhausted with virtual learning. AAPS teachers, staff and school leaders are also carrying a heavy load to serve our students. I know very well that the decision to continue virtual learning for this current time will further exacerbate already existing anger among some. The issue of school reopening during the COVID pandemic is one that has proven deeply divisive in our Ann Arbor community, as is true now in so many communities across the country.
We will continue to monitor the data and update our community consistently according to the process we have shared; this pandemic situation will improve. We look forward to a day before too long when we can confidently implement our in-school reopening plans, beginning with small groups of students and moving through the transition to in-school learning.
Hopeful Developments and Next Steps
While we are not necessarily waiting on a vaccine to move forward in the AAPS, encouragingly, we have received updated information recently regarding forthcoming vaccination processes. We are grateful that educators will be prioritized in this rollout in phase 1b, following the initial phase 1a focused on healthcare providers and those in long-term care facilities. We are currently just beginning to hear emergent information about anticipated timelines for vaccines for children and will share that information when those plans emerge.
For this moment, we must focus on first things first; our collective priority as a community now is to achieve a reduction in the high level of community spread in Ann Arbor in order to coordinate a safe and responsible return to in-school learning.
While Governor Whitmer has referred to this current time as ‘the worst moment’ so far in this COVID crisis, and Dr. Fauci has recently warned that Americans are facing a critical time, including a potentially dark January, there are also encouraging signs emerging just ahead as we continue to wear masks, practice social distancing, work together to reduce rates of community spread and monitor the progress with COVID vaccines.
We have come over a long, arduous path through this COVID crisis, and we cannot let up now when we have some remaining distance ahead of us. We will continue to work vigorously toward the shared goal of a safe, healthy and sustainable return of our students, teachers and staff to in-school learning; to our vibrant AAPS classrooms. Fundamentally, we share the enduring priority of our children, their growth, learning and development moving forward into the future for them and our Ann Arbor community.
Though it isn’t possible to get to every detail in one communication, I have responded to the patterns of the most common topics raised from your engagement over recent days. I hope you will peruse the information according to your interests below or review the full AAPS archived 20-21 presentations and documents.
Thank you for your continued support for the health and safety of our students and staff and of the Ann Arbor Public Schools.
Jeanice K. Swift
Superintendent of Schools
More detailed information is available here on these topics:
- AAPS COVID metrics
- Current COVID infection situation in Ann Arbor
- COVID infections among children 0-17 years and COVID in schools
- COVID cases in the AAPS
- COVID Vaccinations
- Additional challenges during this current surge, and additional context of a responsible reopening to in-school learning
- Clarification: AAPS and the WCHD
- Preparation of our AAPS buildings for a return to in-school learning
- Updates on AAPS Continuity of Learning Plan
AAPS COVID metrics
We remain committed to reviewing AAPS metrics and plans. We will also make adjustments, as may be appropriate as additional information becomes available regarding COVID transmission in schools and how we can best orchestrate a responsible return to in-school learning for our students.
We have discussed publicly and at length that no single metric dictates any decision. Metrics serve as one component to guide decisions, and we have shared other considerations that also factor into a responsible reopen decision, including in the areas of:
- student needs,
- the ability of the school district to implement mitigation strategies,
- the availability of testing and timely results, and contact tracing infrastructure,
- the ability of the school district to ensure consistent, highly-qualified staff in every classroom and for district support functions,
- school community commitment to following mitigation strategies, and
- community indicators of COVID-19 impact.
Current COVID situation in Ann Arbor viewed through the lens of MDHHS and WCHD metrics
Beyond the AAPS COVID metrics, we can clearly examine the current COVID situation in Ann Arbor using specific metrics recently shared in briefings I have participated in with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services team on Tuesday, Dec 8, as well as two recent briefings with members of the Washtenaw County Health Department team and other area school district and community leaders.
From the briefing with the state Director, MDHHS, the three key metrics highlighted in the MDHHS update include:
- share of hospital beds with COVID-19 patients,
- COVID 19 case rates, and
- percent positivity;
Currently, all three of these metrics remain at high levels in Ann Arbor and across Washtenaw County and Michigan
A Washtenaw County Health Department official shared a similar approach to reviewing the metrics of our current status on Wednesday afternoon, noting that Washtenaw County on that day was showing a 10% positivity rate. Washtenaw County, like all Michigan counties, remains at the highest risk level on the MI Safe Start Map, currently at above 300 cases per million. In addition, the WCHD official in the briefing described the current rate of growth in cases we are experiencing as ‘exponential growth’ and also expressed concern about rates of COVID hospitalizations.
Recently, in a separate briefing with WCHD team members and area Superintendents, we examined the current situation in our Ann Arbor area along the following guidelines:
- case rates and trend,
- positivity rate and trend,
- demand and availability of testing,
- timely results of testing,
- ability of public health infrastructure to keep pace to conduct contact tracing, and
- strain on hospitals and healthcare providers.
Significant concerns existed in all of these areas, and these concerns continue at this current time.
COVID infections among children 0-17 years and COVID outbreaks in schools
The number of cases continues to increase across all age groups and is specifically increasing among those aged 0-17 years.
In addition, the WCHD report issued on Thursday, December 10, 2020, shows there were 206 cases of COVID confirmed among those 0-17 years in the previous two weeks in Washtenaw County, the highest number since March.
In a recent briefing, Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, Chief Medical Executive, MDHHS, detailed the top six categories for identified outbreaks in Michigan; K-12 Schools were listed as #2 on this critical list.
In recent MDHHS outbreak reports, a significant percentage of school outbreaks are occurring at all levels of school, including at the elementary level and notably outbreaks occurring at the preschool level.
COVID cases in the AAPS
It’s important to note that since July, AAPS has reported 27 cases of COVID-19 among staff or students who were recently on a school campus. Unfortunately, even with mitigation protocols in place, there were instances of transmission among individuals in a school building or grounds. These cases resulted in illness, missed work and dozens of additional students and staff going into quarantine. These 27 cases are just a fraction of the cases we know of among staff or students, which we were not required to report because the positive individuals had not been on a school campus prior to their diagnosis.
We are pleased to hear news of the coming vaccines and are encouraged that, as detailed in the MDHHS state briefing this week, educators are projected to be prioritized in phase 1b, following phase 1a healthcare workers and those in nursing homes; this is very hopeful news.
Dr. Khaldun concluded in Tuesday’s state briefing that although these next eight weeks are expected to be a very hard time, there are indications that cases should begin to drop following the upcoming 8-week time around the winter holidays.
Additional challenges during this current surge, and full context of a responsible reopening to in-school learning
As a school system, we have additional challenges to consider as we plan for a responsible reopening.
During this current surge, our public health professionals are challenged to keep up with critical contact tracing efforts. We are experiencing a longer wait time for testing and results. Many school districts and organizations are unable to adequately staff classrooms due to the numbers of individuals in quarantine. These are pressing concerns during this current phase of the pandemic as case numbers continue to rise across the county and state.
We will take significant next steps to coordinate a reopening to in-school learning just as soon as we can safely do so. The preliminary stages of reopening - our work with small groups of students and the youngest students - will inform our learning moving forward.
Our students and teachers, staff and families benefit from consistency. The goal has always been to coordinate a responsible and sustainable reopening of schools, rather than the disruption of the ‘on-again, off-again’ approach that some schools have unfortunately experienced.
AAPS and the Washtenaw County Health Department
We value our robust partnership with the WCHD, and as Superintendent, alongside members of our AAPS team, we work closely with these public health professionals on a daily basis. As is their role, these public health professionals provide the guidance to inform our decisions, which is true for every school district in Washtenaw County.
I have addressed the incomplete and misleading statement that the WCHD has determined AAPS metrics to be unachievable. Here is the public statement I shared with more detail in response to this issue.
We have discussed over this fall that we will review the metrics as more research emerges on COVID, children and schools, as therapies and vaccines become available and as other developments emerge.
Preparation of AAPS buildings for a return to in-school learning
Over the last several months, significant work has been completed to prepare AAPS school buildings for the healthiest and safest return possible to in-school learning. Highlights of this work include sneeze guards in offices, increasing touchless surfaces in restrooms, indoor air quality, and attending to healthy water through voluntary testing. Highlights of the work that has been completed and efforts still underway were shared at a Board of Education Study Session earlier this fall. Slides from the presentation can be viewed here, and the video of the presentation is available here.
Some community members have noticed that desks remain stacked up, and classrooms don’t appear to be ready for a return to school. This is for cleaning purposes and will be among the final touches in the days before a return to in-school learning.
Continuity of Learning Plan Updates
Regular updates have been shared publicly on the Continuity of Learning Plan throughout this COVID time, and you can review those updates here.