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Metro Detroit students back to the books in school — and at home

Amid a lingering pandemic, back-to-school looked different Tuesday for students in Michigan.

For some, the day started with temperature checks before school, classrooms with desks spaced apart, and face masks that had to be worn during the day.

For others, it meant logging into virtual learning programs at home, watching and hearing your teachers and classmates on a computer screen, and, in some cases, trouble-shooting when that screen went blank. 

Skylar Edwards, 6, at her desk in her bedroom, with parents Talicia Edwards and Javier Ramirez, trying to reconnect during a zoom session with 1st grader teacher Katelyn Bramos, as well as other students, in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan on September 8, 2020.

For nearly everyone who started the first day of school, it was back to the books after a six-month absence from classrooms that were shuttered in mid-March at the start of the state's coronavirus outbreak.

In Detroit, a city whose population has been hit especially hard by the virus, among the first lessons on the first day of school was staying safe and healthy inside classrooms.

Karen Warner, a third-grade teacher in the Detroit Public Schools Community District, asked each of her students to draw a picture Tuesday morning while in class at Harms Elementary School of something that makes students safe while they attend school during a pandemic.

"With our masks on, we have to talk louder," Warner told the class. "What are you going to do to stay healthy in our new classroom?"

Third-grade teacher Karen Warner talks about the importance of wearing a face mask with her students on the first day of classes at Harms School in Detroit.

Third-grader Gino Suppon was ready with his drawing and his answer, springing to the front of class wearing a blue mask and standing six feet from his teacher, who also wore a mask.

"Hand sanitizer," said Gino, holding up a dry-erase drawing of students in desks with bottles of hand sanitizer nearby.

Thousands of students in the state's largest district returned to school early Tuesday, while thousands of other classmates stayed home to work online.

Five-year-old Byran Castaneda of Detroit looks out through a window in the entrance door at Harms School as he waits for the start of classes on the first day of school at Harms School in Detroit on Tuesday, September 8, 2020.

Educators say the first week of school can be stressful under normal circumstances, but the first day of the first week of the new school year amid a pandemic is rife with challenges, worries and fears.

There are layers of new COVID-19 rules on top of new teachers, new classrooms and new learning materials.

DPSCD superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the 51,000-student district has been working for months on preparing for the first day of school, installing temperature check machines, signs that remind everyone to stay six feet apart and stocking lots of masks for students, teachers and staff.

"I'm comfortable we are ready to go on the first day," Vitti said Tuesday morning inside Harms, where he visited classrooms to see students, teachers and, in one case, help wipe up spilled milk. "You see the signage here, the temperature check machines, the symptoms checker. Now, it's about implementing."

Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Community District, talks to kindergarten student Camila Uribe, 5, on the first day of the new school year at Harms School in Detroit on Tuesday.

Vitti said nearly all of the district's 100 school buildings will have students learning inside, although only 20% of students enrolled for face-to-face learning; the remainder are signed up for virtual learning.

Vitti said his buildings were fully staffed by teachers, who last month had approved a safety strike if certain health conditions were not met for students and school staff. Their demands included a 20-student cap on classrooms, which was in effect on Tuesday.

Inside Harms, on the city's southwest side, kindergartners in Maria Thompson’s class were busy with hand-writing paper and markers Tuesday morning.

Across the room, desks were spaced apart and all facing forward, as recommended by health officials.

Wearing a face mask and a decorated paper hat with his name across the front, student Leonardo Garcia grabbed the black marker in his right hand and found the spot his teacher wanted him to mark to start their project for the morning.

A can of Play-doh, a box of school supplies and a bottle of hand sanitizer stood on Leonardo’s desk as his teacher came by to examine his work.

“They are like first-graders. They already know what to do,” Thompson said of her students.

Schooling at home

The Bloomfield Hills School District is one of several Oakland County school districts only offering learning at home via the district’s learning online platform.

School started just after 9 a.m. for first-grader Skylar Edwards in her pink bedroom in her family’s home in Bloomfield Hills.

Mother Talicia Edwards and father Javier Ramirez made sure Skylar had everything she needed to be successful for her first day, from headphones for her laptop, to workbooks obtained from school last week, to a reading nook in a corner of her bedroom for quiet reading away from the screens.

Skylar, 6, sat at her wood desk inside her bedroom and logged in to see her teacher and several classes on a Zoom call.

The first class went smoothly with Skylar able to see and hear her teacher and classmates. Skylar spoke about her summer and her favorite school subjects and listened to her classmates do the same.

She sat through back-to-back live calls with teachers, then had a break time to wash her hands and use the restroom. Then the teacher introduced students to Google Classroom and a homework assignment.

But in the middle of a Zoom call in the morning, the screen went blank. It was the first technical glitch of the day.

“A link goes down so she had to hurry up and get to the other link,” Ramirez said. “I guess everybody is getting all the quirks straightened out. It’s just the first day of school; it’s bound to happen.”

Skylar handled the technical problem well, her parents said.

“Skylar didn’t skip a beat. She wasn’t stressing or anything,” Ramirez said. “The window of when they are on their computers is short. They aren’t on for very long.”

Skylar Edwards, 6, at her desk in her bedroom during a Zoom classroom session with 1st grader teacher Katelyn Bramos, as well as other students, in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan on September 8, 2020.

Wearing black eyeglasses, the girl sat at her desk, stood up and leaned forward during her lessons. Teacher Katelyn Bramos asked students to talk about their favorite things.

“I told my teacher I like math and science and reading,” said Skylar, looking into her laptop, her pink glitter headphones on her head. "And basketball."

Skylar said she likes school at home because she can eat breakfast there and have snacks. She is enrolled in online school through January, and her parents are happy to have her learning at home.

“I honestly think safety first,” her father said. “We want to be cautious. She is comfortable, and the school faculty is on top of their game.”

A trio of options

Almost every small hand shot up in the air when Jessica Randles asked her kindergarten class at Tipton Academy in Garden City if they were excited to be back at school. The laughter from the 10 children in the classroom didn’t seem to be muffled despite their required masks, and they were just as happy to give out air hugs while sitting in their desks six feet apart.

Kindergarten students at Tipton Academy Elementary Charter School in Garden City clean their desks and chairs off during the first day of classes on Sept. 9, 2020.

The charter school opened with three options that were created in response to feedback from families: 100% online learning, hybrid learning with two days in school and three days online, or in-person classes five days a week.

“Kids want to be in school, but the biggest thing for us as the adults is to figure out how to make it safe and how to make it a good experience for them too,” said Kyle Lackey, Tipton’s principal. “It looks different, but we’re going to figure out a way to get through it this year. … We don’t have everything figured out but that doesn’t mean we’re not going to find a solution.”

Out of the 260 students at Tipton’s pre-K through third-grade building, about 35-40% of those students will be attending in-person classes. Masks are required to be worn at all times unless a teacher allows students to have a mask break for up to 10 minutes while sitting at their desks.

The water fountains are turned off to avoid cross-contamination so parents donated money for the administration to buy water bottles. A quarantine space is set up near the front entrance for any students who feel ill during the day to sit and wait for their parents to pick them up.

Graphics are placed on the hallway floors and lunchroom seats to encourage social distancing. Plexiglass shields will be used to separate students during lunch. Teachers in various subjects rotate among four classrooms, and every two hours, students and staff have to wash their hands in newly added portable sinks in each classroom.

“My administrative team didn’t take a break this summer. … It took a lot of time, a lot of planning, running three different scenarios and putting that into a school schedule was a tall order, but we did it, and I feel like it just took a lot of dedication and work over the summer to do that,” said Angela Gilbert, the school’s superintendent.

Teachers were trained for online learning and parents were given two schedules so virtual learning can be done during most convenient times.

“They both learn best being in person so it was important that they have at least some direction during the week,” said Jennifer Miller, the PTO president and mother of two Tipton students. “Face-to-face is really important for almost everybody because they need that interaction with other students and teachers.”

An extra-challenging start

About 86% of Michigan school districts will offer some or all instruction in person at the beginning of the school year, according to a study by Michigan State University’s Education Policy Innovation Collaborative.

The study found 59% of Michigan school districts are offering students an option to return to school five days a week and 27% of districts are providing children with the ability to return to schools at least two to three days a week.

The bulk of the state's nearly 540 traditional local school districts and its 293 charter schools returned to school after Labor Day.

Some tried a pre-Labor Day start, such as Lansing Public Schools. But that district pushed the first day for students to after Labor Day after a school contractor came down with COVID-19 last month.

Last week, three K-12 Michigan schools reported new outbreaks of the coronavirus, bringing the total number of outbreaks in schools to 11 since Aug. 20.

State health officials did not specify which districts had the three new outbreaks, only which regions: 1 and 2N.

Region 1 covers Clinton, Eaton, Gratiot, Hillsdale, Ingham, Jackson, Lenawee, Livingston and Shiawassee counties, while 2N includes Macomb, Oakland and St. Clair counties.

The outbreaks are reported by local health departments to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services every week. COVID-19 outbreaks are generally defined as two or more cases with a link by place and time, indicating a shared exposure outside of a household, state health officials said.

Meanwhile, a majority of Michigan voters said it is safer for children to go to school online instead of in-person amid the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, according to a new Detroit News-WDIV poll.

The statewide survey of Michigan residents likely to vote in November found 50% favored online school for now, while 38% believed students should return to classes in person this fall. Another 7% supported a combination of in-person and virtual learning.

All Michigan school districts are required to revisit their learning plans monthly, whether they be fully in-person, a hybrid of in-person and virtual classes, or fully remote.

Quieter than usual

Novi High School’s lunchroom would normally be bustling with students packed side by side at more than 70 tables. Instead, on the school’s first day of in-person classes since March, the room was quieter and only three students sat at each round table.

The hallways that more than 2,000 students would normally cross weren’t as crowded either, which was helpful for 14-year-old freshman Sydney VanGoethem as she tried not to get lost while finding her classes.

“Normally, it would be more busy and there would be a lot more people and we would still have football games to go to, but we don’t get any of that this year," she said. "So our first year is not really ruined, because we still have it, but it’s not normal like everybody else’s first year.” 

While Sydney said she was nervous about the unusual start of her first year in high school, she was comforted by having her brother, senior Drew VanGoethem, help her find her classes. Both said they chose to have in-person classes because they’d be better motivated to do the schoolwork.

“Doing the virtual online stuff in spring … I found myself less motivated and less happy to do things," said Drew, 17. "So I find that personally when I’m around people, I’m more likely to do better on things. I’m just happier.”

Novi High doesn’t offer a full in-person class schedule. Families were able to choose from all-virtual learning or a hybrid of two days in school and three days online. On Mondays and Thursdays, the school will have about 550 students in the building, and on Tuesdays and Fridays, 450 students will attend in-person classes.

“I would say that they are very resilient. Our students and our staff were definitely eager to come back here," principal Nicole Carter said. "School is a safe place and you could just tell, looking at everyone’s eyes … the kids were just super excited to be back.” 

Masks are required at Novi High and disinfectant wipes are available so students can wipe down their desks and chair at the start of each class. About 10 to 15 students are in each class, with some classrooms having as few as three students. The school bus routes are even smaller: drivers only picked up seven to 15 students per bus during the first morning back.

“It was weird seeing everybody wearing masks because you couldn’t see everybody’s faces, but it also wasn’t as awkward as I thought it was going to be because you can still talk to people,” said  Ava Moretto, a 14-year-old sophomore. “I think they did a good job of keeping everything COVID-safe, but I can’t wait until it’s normal and we can take off our mask and talk to each other face-to-face.”

Novi Community School District superintendent Steve Matthews said the administration has done as much as possible to provide a safe learning experience for students

“The biggest concern we have is what happens outside of school and then because anything that happens outside of school can get brought into the school … the only way to keep schools safe is if the community takes this seriously as well,” Matthews said.

jchambers@detroitnews.com