Over the summer, big changes came to Ypsilanti Community Schools (YCS) with the district ending its contract with the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Department and implementing big changes to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic that have altered students’ daily lives.
Changes have been made with guidance of the YCS School Board, the Superintendent, and a task force that includes 100 staff members. Decisions were made based on recommendations from the CDC, Washtenaw County Health Department and Harvard University’s Path to Zero. Feelings from the families of students were also taken into consideration prior to changes being made.
“We just want [students] safe, we just want the teachers and all of our support staff to be safe, so we are going to do whatever it takes,” Alena Zachery-Ross, the Superintendent of YCS said.
COVID-19 impact on the school environment
Prior to the start of the fall semester, parents and guardians were given three choices of teaching methods. YCS was able to accommodate everyone’s first choice.
The first option is face-to-face learning. This was chosen by about 300 students, 163 of which are attending the high school. The students attending elementary school meet in person Monday through Thursday, those at the middle school meet Monday and Tuesday and the high schoolers meet on Wednesday and Thursday. For students meeting in-person the district has only opened two of their buildings to ensure thorough cleaning.
The second option is referred to as “remote.” About 80 % of the 3,788 students in the district chose this option. These students have begun the semester doing online learning, but they will eventually phase into face-to-face learning. An exact time frame for when students will shift to phase-in will take place is unknown, but conversations will begin in October. When the phasing in begins, YCS is planning to reopen more buildings, allowing for students to spread out.
The third option allowed students to choose to be online for the entire school year. The remaining 10 percent of students chose this option. Students attend live online classes and are also able to do virtual one-on-one meetings with their teachers.
School provided breakfast and lunches are still available for all students, including those doing both face-to-face and online classes. During in-person learning, students are given their choice of a hot or cold lunch during attendance. The lunch is then brought to their classroom and a designated spots to make have been assigned to ensure students stay six feet apart. The tables are fully sanitized before and after lunch.
Children attending virtual school are able to pick up food every week and starting in October the district plans to add more pick-up locations to accommodate students that may have transportation difficulties.
Classes like gym, art, and music are all being taught remotely. They are pre-recorded and referred to as “flipped lessons.” Starting on Oct. 5, Eastern Michigan University Bright Futures Program will come to Ypsilanti schools for two hours at the end of the day to bring enrichment to students' days.
Sports have not been canceled, but students are limited to bringing only two pre-approved guests to games.
YCS is trying to keep students engaged and give them a sense of belonging. To do this, they have started a student project-based learning program. The goal of the program is to teach students about their personal voice and heritage. At the end of the year, the district will create a “YCS Freedom Dreamers” website in order for students to view each other's work.
Due to the variety of classes taken at the high school level, most “face-to-face” lessons are still taught online. Students sit together in classrooms with headphones and a computer, and watch virtual lessons on their screens.
In class school supplies are kept in a backpack attached to every student’s designated seat. If materials are shared, they will be sanitized after each use.
“Our teachers have been so innovative, creative, and flexible. For instance, I went into a kindergarten classroom and usually the blocks are in one big area, but now they have small sets of blocks that are on their desks. They are still able to see their friends doing something, but they have to have their own sets of materials,” Zachery-Ross said.
Classroom sizes are limited to 16 students per room. This decision was made after measuring classrooms and calculating how many students can fit in each room while maintaining social distancing.
COVID facilitators or “hall monitors,” as students many call them, ensure that students do not wander in the hallways. Students must be escorted every time they leave the classroom.
Designated “mask breaks” allow students doing in-person learning to take off their masks and breathe. This is done outside during recess. Students are required to wear masks from the moment they get on the bus and arrive at school until they arrive home.
“One thing to note about students in person— they are really resilient. They have worn their masks all day long. We thought we would need so many more mask breaks, but the students seem to be even more resilient than the adults,” Zachery-Ross said.
Funding during COVID-19
Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer used $65 million in federal CARES Act funding to support public schools in response to budget impacts due to COVID-19. YCS has received $328,108 in grants through this funding because 72% of the students in the district are economically disadvantaged.
“We are very grateful for the CARES Act funding because really having what they call ‘pandemic learning’ is so much more expensive,” Zachery-Ross said.
Funding has gone to some of the following materials:
Personal protective equipment including masks, hand sanitizers, gloves, plexiglass for offices, and signage
Professional development for faculty members district wide
Salaries for COVID facilitators or “hall monitors”
Contracted professional cleaning
360 machines to disinfect rooms at the end of each school day
Purchasing online curriculum
Foodservice items, like carts for classroom delivery, pay for food delivery drivers and servers, and food costs for what was served during summer months
Internet access that is provided for families
These costs have all come with the transition to pandemic-conscious and online learning.
YCS ends contract with the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office
During the July 20 YCS School Board meeting, it was decided that that YCS would not renew its $160,000 contract with the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO). This decision has ended assigned school resource officers for YCS.
The decision was announced by both the YCS Superintendent, Alena Zachery-Ross, and the Washtenaw County Sheriff, Jerry L. Clayton.
One of the reasons behind the termination of the contract was the school’s financial burdens as a result of COVID-19. It was ultimately decided that the funding would be needed for supplies.
Another factor was the changing view on police officers in schools.
“In this area specifically, there had been a lot of families who had unrest with the thought of actual police officers in the schools and they talked about how we need more social and emotional support in the schools than funding a police officer,” Zachery-Ross said.
In spite of the contract ending, the schools are still on good terms with the WCSO.
“Our Sheriff's Department [and] the Ypsilanti Community Police Department, has been very supportive. They would still come and support us. They understood that we aren’t even really in person right now; they understand the [School] Board's position and have still helped with the food distribution sites. Our relationship and wonderful partnership was kept, it's just having them inside the schools. As a matter of fact, they will still be at sporting events and other large events,” Zachery-Ross said.
A supportive community helps shift the burden
Hardships YCS is facing due to the COVID-19 pandemic have been offset by a giving and supportive community. Donations have been received by YCS, tutors and EMU student teachers have shifted to virtual teaching, and community members have assisted in providing masks. A church driven backpack drive provided every student with a backpack.
“The people who donated, we want to make sure we thank them because a lot of the people in this community donate... Partners have found a way to still work with the district even amongst this pandemic,” Zachery-Ross said.
YCS is appreciative of all the help of everyone involved in making the school year successful. “We can’t wait to get all of our students back in person because we miss them and they miss each other and they miss their teachers,” Zachery-Ross said.
For more information and ways to donate visit the YCS COVID-19 resource page.