Ann Arbor parents rally for students to return to the classroom

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Kathy Bishop's second-grader was "falling apart" this fall as she tried to navigate virtual learning.

The struggles became so dire that Bishop pulled her child from Ann Arbor Public Schools' Allen Elementary and sent her to a private school with an in-person learning program.

"She's a social kid," Bishop said. "She loves school and was just falling apart."

Bishop joined Saturday with about 100 other parents, educators and members of the grassroots advocacy group Ann Arbor Reasonable Return to urge the district to abide by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's goal of reopening Michigan schools to in-person instruction by March 1.

Opponents of the district's shutdown to in-person learning to stem spread of COVID-19 rallied Saturday outside the Ann Arbor Post Office on Liberty Street, chanting "Kids count too" and displaying signs proclaiming "Kids are safest in classrooms" and "I do not want to learn on zoom." Organizers said families thought they would be afforded a choice, but instead feel ignored.

Reasonable Return's ongoing demands come as Washtenaw County grapples with a new, more contagious strain of COVID-19 that prompted a stay-in-place order for the University of Michigan.

A banner is stretched across the front steps of the Ann Arbor Post Office on Saturday, January 30, 2021.

UM this week asked students living on or near the Ann Arbor campus to stay at their homes and not gather in groups through Feb. 7 to stop the spread of the B.1.1.7 variant, a more contagious strain of COVID-19 that's been circulating in Washtenaw and Wayne counties.

Washtenaw County's Health Department made the recommendation for the order on Wednesday. The strain, first identified in Washtenaw County, is now tied to at least 14 students at UM. 

Melissa Emery of Ann Arbor holds signs and listens to speakers during the rally at the main Ann Arbor Post Office on Saturday, January 30, 2021.

Emily Fanelli, the mother of a kindergarten and third-grade student in Ann Arbor's Eberwhite Elementary, took part in the rally, saying she's used up vacation and sick time to stay home and help her children with online learning.

"My kindergartener has just protested. He won't go on Zoom at all. He is done," said Fanelli, of her son, Dino, 6. "This isn't sustainable anymore."

Ben and Katie Hale moved their daughter Millie to a private, in-person program after a couple of months of school this year. The abundance of screen time and the daycare-like setting Millie was in because both parents work caused her to struggle and develop behavioral issues. 

"We were very fortunate to be in the position we are in with being able to go to an independent school," Ben Hale said. "We have a lot of friends who are not in that position. Their kids are important to us, too."

Whitmer, in early January, noted Michigan's 800 districts have their own "unique situations," but she wants in-person learning available, especially for younger students. 

Rita Simpson-Vlach of Ann Arbor holds signs in support of opening schools during the rally.

Ann Arbor Public Schools Superintendent Jeanice Swift said in a Thursday update on the district's website that school officials understand and support Whitmer's goal of reopening.

"We appreciate the Governor’s stated commitment to prioritize the vaccination of school personnel in Phase 1B to support the goal of a confident reopening of Michigan school buildings," she wrote. "However, the current reality is that the declaration of beginning vaccination processes for teachers on January 11th has not yet occurred in Washtenaw County due to the lack of supply of the vaccine. State and federal officials continue to work to secure enough vaccines for everyone in phases 1A and 1B to obtain the first doses."

President Joe Biden announced Tuesday that the U.S. is stepping up deliveries of the vaccine to hard-pressed states in the coming weeks. He expects there will be enough doses to vaccinate 300 million Americans by the end of summer or early fall.

Ann Arbor's district, Swift added, will continue for now with the virtual instruction model in place since last fall and no date has been set for a hybrid learning option. The in-school hybrid plan will be worked on in February. 

Bishop is skeptical of the school's vow to work toward an in-person return.

"I think it's literally just a delay tactic," she said. "I don't think our kids will ever see the inside of a classroom (this school year)."