Ann Arbor public schools face many challenges delivering classes during the ongoing pandemic

It has now been over a month since the Ann Arbor Public School students were back in the classroom amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lisa Barry from WEMU speaks to the headmistress of Ann Arbor, Dr. Jeanice Swift, on the many challenges they face in keeping children studying in the classroom despite the ongoing global health crisis.

Listen to the full interview.


Lisa Barry: The school in the Ann Arbor Public School district has been back in operation for over a month. I’m Lisa Barry so we thought we should go see Dr. Jeanice Swift, superintendent of Ann Arbor School, report to see how teaching is going if a pandemic continues. Thank you for joining us, Dr. Swift. How are you holding

Dr. Jeanice Swift: Well, it’s great to be with you, Lisa. Thanks very much. And the schools are open. So that’s the good news.

Lisa Barry: Is there any good news? I mean, I always try to be positive, but I guess I’m looking for a reality check of how it’s going.

Dr. Jeanice Swift: You know, it’s weird that you use reality because that’s the word we use. And when our students and staff are back in our schools, our schools are of course fully open. That is progress, and we just want to celebrate that progress. It’s nice to see happy children at school. You learn and grow and thrive under the guidance of our teachers and our team. And yet we have some realities this fall, actually in three areas. And one is the concern that our students in our elementary schools and really through part of the middle school may not be vaccinated up to the age of 12 at this point. So worries about COVID in school certainly remain. Second, as you have heard across the country, we are really facing some of our human and operational challenges, particularly in the bus and transportation sectors. In some of these operations we are just not at the high level we are working for in the district and planning and expecting. Therefore, we will continue these fixes and improvements as soon as possible this fall. Our COVID concerns and then the operational challenges and then our staff and labor shortages are really those three areas that we are focusing on.

Lisa Barry: How bad is it? How is the labor shortage affecting Ann Arbor public schools?

Dr. Jeanice Swift: It’s very simple, and yet we find that this is not just an expected fluctuation in work, but actually represents that a number of our part-time and hourly workers make up a percentage of that workforce that really decided to stop working. So what we are seeing is really a social shift in who will fill these roles as bus drivers and child carers, food and nutrition workers, and classroom assistants. This is the bigger question and challenge we all face, not just in Ann Arbor public schools but nationwide.

Lisa Barry: You mentioned a social change. I think this is huge and you are breaking new ground as we are officially still in a pandemic. Are Ann Arbor Public Schools operating as you might expect?

Dr. Jeanice Swift: You know Lisa, we were prepared for the excitement of the return and our teachers. I speak and speak to teachers every day and they are so excited to be back in the classroom with the students. And yet we knew there would be the realities of COVID and COVID infections, especially until we get to that point of pediatric vaccines. We probably didn’t expect any of the labor shortages in the country, I believe, and even our supply chain problems for things like groceries are coming in and other supplies we need. I think some of these challenges are a bit more bearable. They’re a bit more persistent on a deeper level than what we expected and frankly anything we’ve ever experienced before.

Lisa Barry: So it sounds like you’re saying the challenges are many.

Dr. Jeanice Swift: They are, Lisa. They are.

Lisa Barry: And what about the COVID rate among students? I heard you have a school called Pittsfield Elementary which is now operated remotely, is it just COVID or other situations too?

Dr. Jeanice Swift: Well Lisa, we are seeing COVID cases increase in our elementary, middle and high school levels. You’re right. Under the direction of the Washtenaw County Health Department, we switched to distance learning for Pittsfield Elementary for the five days of that school week. This decision was based on confirmed COVID cases. Some suspected school prevalence and high student absenteeism. And so there is this reality and we just appreciate that everyone in the classroom community, our students, and our teachers and staff are working together healthily and safely through this time.

Lisa Barry: Can you share who is getting COVID? Is it the students or the teachers or the staff? And do they get it from vaccinated or unvaccinated people? I don’t want to go into privacy issues here, but I’m just wondering. Is there any trend you could share with us as it’s moving through schools?

Dr. Jeanice Swift: What we see in the cases we see in and around our schools is really a family influence. So we often see cases of siblings and possibly parents getting infected together. And maybe these siblings are spread over two or three school campuses. So this is really the pattern that we are observing right now. We are pleased that there is usually close contact between the students in grades 7 to 12. Almost all of them are vaccinated so that they can continue to come to class undisturbed. But we’re also seeing in our elementary schools where students haven’t yet qualified for a vaccine, that there are effects, and that sometimes we have to take time off and move to remote areas for a day or two, according to Washtenaw County health counseling, and sweep Then go back to school to stop this spread.

Lisa Barry: And I know there are some questions and concerns about the mask mandate due to the recent budget approved by state lawmakers. But in Ann Arbor public schools, do you remain committed to that masking mandate?

Dr. Jeanice Swift: We definitely do. We practice our super six, which requires full masking indoors. And Lisa, when I go through schools, I see our students, you know, the youngest students through high school. And I just want to compliment our students, our teachers, our staff, our parents, and our community as we see a high level of support and adherence to the containment strategies necessary to get through this fall COVID period.

Lisa Barry: And I heard that Washtenaw County has booster vaccinations now and school staff qualify for it?

Dr. Jeanice Swift: We’re so excited. There are two bright spots in the information we have recently learned. One is that it looks like those pediatric vaccinations might come later this fall. So we are very excited as I know our parents will hear about this possibility. Second, you’re right, Lisa. Our teachers and school staff have qualified for the booster vaccination in this professional category and will actually get it now. You remember, Lisa, it was March, April when most of our employees could be vaccinated last spring. So we’re just getting into this six-month timeframe, so we’re really grateful that our employees can get boosters.

Lisa Barry: You face so many different problems running Ann Arbor Public Schools. I wonder if anyone will hear this and tell you, Dr. Jeanice Swift or the public schools would like to show his support. Is there anything we can do?

Dr. Jeanice Swift: That’s very nice, Lisa. Thank you for that question. Well, first of all we ask that we all practice our abatement strategies and be vaccinated. That’s the best we can do to protect our community. Second, through your network, if you share our job postings, we just had a very successful fall job fair. This is a first ever. We had a very successful fair last week. We still have vacancies in our system. Ann Arbor Public Schools are a wonderful organization to work for. For those called to serve children, we would appreciate you considering one of the many jobs we currently have open.

Lisa Barry: Ann Arbor Headmistress Dr. Jeanice Swift. Thank you for all you are doing to keep the children in class and everyone healthy and good luck and continued support in helping you move forward.

Dr. Jeanice Swift: Yes. Thank you, Lisa. It is a pleasure to be with you and thank you for your support in our Ann Arbor community in supporting these efforts. We will get through this time and there are brighter days ahead. And we simply appreciate everyone who works together to serve and support our students.

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– Lisa Barry is the host of All Things Considered on WEMU. You can contact Lisa at 734.487.3363, on Twitter @LisaWEMU, or by email at [email protected]

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