Ann Arbor trustee comments rile physicians urging in-person learning

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

An Ann Arbor public schools trustee has suggested area physicians pushing for in-person learning options in the district were pushing teachers into risky environments that doctors wouldn't subject themselves to. 

Area doctors — more than 350 of whom had signed a letter urging the school board to reopen in-person learning — were "positioning themselves as experts in education administration," said Jessica Kelly, vice president for the Ann Arbor Public Schools Board of Education. 

"Not a single doctor who has signed any letter this year is willing to do themselves what they’re demanding of our teachers," Kelly said at a Wednesday board meeting. "You will never find an unvaccinated doctor simultaneously addressing 10 or 20 or 30 patients, even through well visits, in a closed room for seven hours straight wearing only a cotton mask.”

Jessica Kelly, vice president of Ann Arbor Public Schools Board of Education

The comments by Kelly came after health care professionals spent 11 months on the front lines fighting the disease, at least nine of which they worked without the benefit of the vaccine. During the early months of the disease, health care workers were short of personal protective gear even as numbers surged throughout the state and the capacity of Detroit-area hospitals was tested.

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Upon hearing Kelly's comments, many doctors who signed a letter urging the reopening of Ann Arbor schools were upset with the tenor and recommended Kelly's resignation, removal or censure, said Dr. Kimberly Monroe, a pediatrician and assistant professor at Michigan Medicine, the University of Michigan's health system. 

Monroe helped to organize the letter and, on Monday, expressed disappointment about Kelly's comments, which she hoped were unintended.

"I was really shocked when I heard what she said," Monroe said. "My assumption is she probably didn’t mean to sound that way. But the truth is you’re at a board meeting, you’re a trustee and words are important.”

Katie Hale of Ann Arbor holds sign in support of opening schools at a rally at Ann Arbor's Main Post Office on Saturday, January 30, 2021.

Kelly said she was appreciative of pediatricians' work and didn't want to dismiss concerns about isolation. But she said public health guidelines warned against the activities that would take place in in-person schooling such as mass transit, large gatherings or play dates. 

In a Monday statement to The Detroit News, Kelly said her words Wednesday were "to a specific set of individuals who have been outspoken in their demands to re-open school buildings without regard to the complexities of doing so."

"I never intended to convey anything other than gratitude for the bravery and expertise of our medical community working in their various specialties during the pandemic, and for anything short of that I apologize," Kelly said.

As recently as two weeks ago, parents and members of the grassroots advocacy group Ann Arbor Reasonable Return rallied outside the Ann Arbor Post Office to urge the reopening of in-person learning. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer set a goal for reopening Michigan schools to in-person instruction by March 1, a deadline that Ann Arbor Public Schools is not likely to meet. 

Earlier this month more than 350 Ann Arbor area physicians signed a letter encouraging the school district to reopen and ensuring that it could be done safely, even without a vaccine. 

Dozens of doctors who signed the letter worked with COVID patients for nine months without a vaccine, at times performing aerosol-generating procedures that put them at greater risk of contracting the virus, Monroe said. Teachers will have mitigation measures in place and will be working with kids who largely are at lower risk for transmission, she said.

Scientifically, the comments don't make sense, Monroe said. And from a community perspective, the comments don't help to bring the school community together on a divisive issue, she said. 

"It doesn’t sound like she wants us to advocate and, as a pediatrician, that’s actually part of my job," Monroe said.

The district relies on a variety of experts in making its decisions on in-person instruction, including curriculum professionals, human resources, building management, transit professionals and public health experts, Kelly told The News Monday. Washtenaw County teachers still lack sufficient access to vaccines, testing, contact tracing and vaccines, she said. 

"I hope that we agree as a community that no one should be compelled to face COVID and its variants without the protections that are now available," she said. 

Dr. Daniel Schneider, a pulmonologist and critical care physician at Michigan Medicine, worked almost exclusively with COVID-19 patients at the height of the pandemic in March, April and May and continues to work with virus patients in the New Year. 

Schneider, who has three children in Ann Arbor Public Schools, signed the letter asking the board to reopen in-person instruction after considering the research and science supporting such action. 

Kelly's comments at the board meeting, Schneider said, missed the larger context of the request. Area physicians were not asking for the reopening of schools because doctors had worked in similar conditions. Instead they were requesting the reopening because peer-reviewed research and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed there was low risk for transmission tied to in-person learning, he said.

"This community and this public school system that I have really grown to love has kind of become this enemy that we fought so hard to defend against at the beginning of the pandemic," Schneider said, arguing many of the same people urging others to follow the science and data last spring are ignoring it now.

"It all comes down to this convenient disregard for science when you feel like it doesn’t fit your agenda,” he said.