Grosse Pointe students stay present while over 100 teachers in sick-out

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Attendance Friday at Grosse Pointe Public Schools was business as usual despite more than 100 district teachers staying home from work this week and rumors that students would be calling in sick en masse.

After some students indicated they planned to call in sick in solidarity with their teachers, Superintendent Gary Niehaus pleaded with parents to keep their kids in class. 

"Now is the time to set aside our differences and finish the school year strong. In this spirit, please do not keep your student home tomorrow or any other day," Niehaus wrote Thursday night in a letter to parents. "This accomplishes nothing other than disrupts the learning environment and divides those conflicted between their sense of loyalty and sense of duty."

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Student attendance Friday, even with quarantines, remained at nearly 90% with more than 6,100 students in person. On April 23, it was 91%, and on April 16, it was 89%, according to the district.

About 700 students are enrolled in the district's OneGP virtual learning, said Rebecca Fannon, spokeswoman for Grosse Pointe Public School System.

Students begin to exit Grosse Pointe North High School on Wednesday, April 28, 2021 as teachers called for a sick out.

Substitute teachers, central office staff, teachers from other buildings and other staffers from the Grosse Pointe Public School System had to be deployed on Wednesday to cover classes for the 116 absent teachers, including 47 teachers at North High School.

The district did not respond Friday if the teachers returned to work.

 Niehaus, who held a press conference Wednesday afternoon at district administrative offices, said the school system normally has an average of 61 teachers out on a given day. Niehaus said he sat in on two classes at North High — German and TV production — to cover for teachers.

Niehaus said on Wednesday he considered the large number of teachers who did not report for work to be a "one-day event" and acknowledged there is a difference of opinion on the board's decision to ease quarantine rules to allow more students to be in school face-to-face.

The board said students were being "over-quarantined" and the current guidelines were unsustainable because so many students were stuck at home.

The change was approved late Monday night by the district's school board in a 6-1 vote. 

According to data released by the district, more than 1,900 students needed to quarantine after potential exposure in April alone, as well as some teachers and staff. 

"By those standards a single COVID positive high school student, in our seven-period day, could close quarantine 15-50 students," Niehaus said in a statement. "Our board passed the resolution 6-1, supporting measures to keep more students in face to face instruction, for families that choose that option. That same evening, an update on our OneGP Virtual option was shared with the community."

In a letter to parents Thursday, Niehaus said he urged teachers to find a way to return to work following the new regulations including contract tracing of any student within three feet, those deemed close will be able to return after 10 days with a rapid test on the fifth day or later.

Grosse Pointe school Superintendent Gary Niehaus speaks about the large number of teacher absences in the district on Wednesday, April 28, 2021.

Niehaus made the same appeal to parents requesting students not remain home.

"This accomplishes nothing other than disrupts the learning environment and divides those conflicted between their sense of loyalty and sense of duty," he wrote to parents. "There are many ways to show your appreciation to our teachers, but keeping your child home is not one."

The Grosse Pointe Education Association represents hundreds of professional educators of the city's public school system and said, "The outstanding teachers of this district deserve better."

Teacher, secretary and paraprofessional union presidents Kim Manikas, Margaret O'Connell, Andrew Praedel and Christopher Pratt voiced concerns after the district returned to hybrid learning on Jan. 4. The union presidents said the return was a success until many employees quickly became ill and said parents were not informing schools that their child had been exposed.

"In light of this dedication to our students, we were very disheartened to read a statement from the superintendent sent to GP families today that publicly criticized our teachers who chose to use that leave time," the Grosse Pointe Education Association tweeted this week.

The public criticism, the group said, harms the already low morale of teachers who are struggling to maintain classrooms whether in remote, hybrid or in-person as the state experiences a teacher shortage.

"Teachers have many options among many districts to choose from. If GPPSS wants to continue to attract the best and brightest to teach in our district, it would be in everyone's best interest for the administration to refrain from attacking teachers for using leave time," the association said.

Jess Mathiak, a nurse who posted in the group "Michigan Save our Kids Open Our Schools," criticized the teachers after students were forced into the gymnasium unsure what to do without an instructor. She did not immediately respond to The News' request Friday.

“So while teachers who chose not to show up for kids, know that we parents will always show up. We don’t call in sick. We don't play games. We don’t take our ball and go home,” Mathiak wrote. “Thank you to the teachers who bravely said no to peer pressure and who came in to teach."

Twitter: @SarahRahal_