Earlier today-- our initial letter to Dr. Roby
Aug 1, 2020 —
A small group of parents have started work this week to craft a thoughtful response as we continued to do outreach to other parents and community organizations.
A/ We are looking to connect with a wider variety of parents. We recognize that most all of our group is white and we are working to share this effort and include and support a more diverse range of parents.
B/ We also recognize that our timeline to get activated and engaged is very narrow. In an effort to ensure that we parents are included beyond the tools used or promised to date (a 3 question survey, and a townhall).
Below is the letter sent to Dr. Roby at noon from a small group of 200+ parents that were able to jump on a zoom call to start organizing this effort:
July 31, 2020
To Dr. Leadriane Roby:
On Monday, July 27, you announced the plan for Grand Rapids Public Schools to return to school in the fall using a 100% virtual platform for the first marking period. We are so grateful to know that you are concerned about the health of students, teachers, staff and families during this incredibly difficult and unprecedented time, and we appreciate that this decision came after surveying parents in the district as well as taking into account information from public health authorities. Many of us were relieved by this decision and felt that, at the core, it was the right call.
However, we feel like GRPS has missed an opportunity to be a leader in this fraught moment by coming up with some creative solutions that address some of the major challenges of a virtual plan. What story will GRPS be able to tell about how it handled schooling during the pandemic? Will we be able to say that we led with innovative solutions and community-based problem-solving? Or will we have to say that we simply ‘got by’ with the same virtual plans that are not working for families nationwide?
GRPS is known as a leader in education for having innovative options available for families in the district. From neighborhood schools to theme schools to sixth grade specialty schools to one of the best public high schools in the state, GRPS has a lot to be proud of. We want GRPS and our students and families to be proud of how we have handled this pandemic as well. We want to see GRPS use innovative and community-driven solutions that will see us stronger on the other side of this pandemic than we were before. We know this will be challenging with budget deficits and not enough financial resources. But we believe we can do it together.
To that end, we would like to address some of the main difficulties GRPS families and our community will face under the virtual learning plan. We know that GRPS leaders and staff are working hard and we appreciate that deeply. We know GRPS can’t solve every problem alone and with a limited budget. But we think that by working closely with parents and community partners, the school district can leverage the resources in the community to achieve two primary goals that we all share: 1) keep families enrolled in the district, and 2) provide a high-quality academic experience for our students this fall.
Challenges Facing GRPS Families Under the 100% Virtual Plan
We all know that school is not merely childcare. But the reality is that our society and economy evolved under the reality that children are in school a certain amount of time each week, which allows parents to be able to work and earn money. During school breaks, families with working parents often have to pay for childcare. However, even most families with two incomes still cannot afford full-time childcare year round. While the current plan only has virtual learning through October, paying for two months of full-time child care, and/or a parent taking two months off work to watch children would be prohibitive for many families.
In addition, we cannot know what the situation will be in October when it comes to this pandemic. It’s likely that with a change in weather and more people spending time indoors we could see another spike in cases, not a decrease as we all hope. So, while we understand that as of now this is a temporary plan, we have to treat it as a long-term plan for the purposes of families deciding how they will make schooling work for their children.
Student Mental Health
Many students, especially those in adolescence, are struggling deeply without the social interaction that school provides. Developmentally, friends should be playing an increasing role in the lives of pre-teens and teens. They need those interactions to develop social skills that will carry into adulthood. Students are suffering depression and anxiety related to losing these opportunities to interact in person with their peers.
Addressing Different Learning Styles
Some children simply don’t seem to learn well with the virtual model. They struggle to focus or simply feel too disconnected from their teachers and classmates to engage properly, which is what facilitates learning. There are students with IEPs whose needs cannot be met through virtual instruction. Younger students have difficulties utilizing a virtual learning platform. GRPS has taken many strides to ensure our students are proficient in English/Language Arts by 3rd grade, yet learning to read and write virtually seems challenging for even the most well-equipped students.
We have several theme schools in the district that families chose based on the understanding that those schools would operate in a certain way. It is very difficult for Montessori, Zoo, Blandford, and other theme schools to maintain their unique programs without access to the physical spaces and materials that are at the core of these programs.
Student Health and Safety
Many students in GRPS rely on breakfast and lunch provided by the schools in order to get enough to eat. While there has been availability of grab-and-go lunches throughout the spring and summer, the windows for these options have been limited and don’t work for every family. The school also provides a safe space for children who are not safe in their own homes, and teachers and staff are often the first to notice warning signs of an unsafe home life. It is difficult to address these needs with a 100% virtual plan, but there may be some creative collaborative options available that have not been considered yet.
Ensuring equity has been a huge concern for many GRPS parents. COVID has hit communities of color the hardest, so returning to school in person would exacerbate that disparity. At the same time, our communities of color are also the most under-resourced and in need of the benefits access to school provides. So, a 100% virtual model exacerbates that disparity, too. Some of the parent-led solutions we are seeing pop up around the city (and the country), such as hiring teachers to teach small pods of students, will also exacerbate disparities by excluding families who can’t afford to pay teachers, as well as by defaulting to neighborhood groups, which are often segregated by race.
For some parents, based on their experience in the spring, they simply know that virtual instruction will not work for their families for a variety of reasons. Many of these parents are committed to GRPS and/or to their school. These parents are looking for ways to remain in the district or in their school, but still maintain some flexibility so that their children can succeed. To avoid losing these families, GRPS must come up with ways for these families to have the flexibility to create or modify their own learning plans while remaining in the district. If these families want to remain in the district, and GRPS wants the families to remain in the district, we should be able to work together to find a way to make that happen.
Transparency and Inclusion in Decision Making
In order for GRPS plans to fully address the needs of the community, it’s important to have representation at the table where decisions are being made. As parents, knowing specifically who was involved in crafting this plan, and who was consulted could help us know that concerns of myriad members of our community have been heard and considered. While we appreciate that surveys were conducted, we don’t believe that is a substitute for actually having input and a presence at the decision-making table.
As you saw above, there are many challenges with the 100% virtual plan. We don’t think that means it’s the wrong decision; most of us agree with the underlying choice. However, we’d like to see creative and innovative problem solving, with the district’s involvement, to address some of these concerns. While we don’t expect the district to solve each problem on its own, the reality is that from an organizational standpoint, GRPS is in the best position to address many of these problems. Many individuals and other community organizations simply don’t have the information or ability to communicate with all families in the district the way GRPS does.
Other districts in the state and around the country are offering learning lab spaces for children to come and complete their work in a safe space monitored by an adult. Some districts are facilitating the creation of neighborhood groups. Others are looking at using outdoor spaces for some limited in-person interaction.
These aren’t the only possible solutions, and we aren’t asking the district to implement any of these specific solutions on its own. What we are asking for is a meeting that brings parents to the table in a meaningful way to collaborate and assist the district in meeting these challenges. “Nothing about us without us” has become a saying across the country as a reminder that policies and decisions should never be made in silos. We ask for GRPS to embrace this philosophy and engage with families as co-creators of collaborative solutions.
Our ultimate goals are to keep families in the district and to make sure our kids are receiving a high quality educational experience this fall. We know you share those goals and we want to work together to achieve them. We represent a group of over 200 parents and more are joining every day. We would like to meet with you and other administrators from the district, either virtually or at an outdoor space socially distanced, to figure out how we as parents can support the district and how the district can support families. We have also started a change.org petition as a way to illustrate to you how much support there is in the district for parents to have a meaningful voice in decision-making, especially now.
We look forward to your response and hope to be able to meet with you soon.
Tera Wozniak Qualls
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