The Reality of the Return to In-Person Schooling

Ann Arbor Public Schools has begun opening its doors again to elementary school students. After 377 days without in-person learning, parents are beginning to feel a sense of hope and some resignation for AAPS students.

return to in-person learning
A group of younger students at Eberwhite elementary school. Eberwhite is one of 19 elementary schools in Ann Arbor Public schools. Photo courtesy of Eberwhite Elementary School's Twitter.

March 25, 2021, became the first day for some Ann Arbor Public Schools students to return to in-person schooling. Students walked into AAPS buildings 377 days after the original school shut down on March 13, 2020. All AAPS students spent over half of the 2020-2021 school year doing virtual classes but the district is working to make in-person learning an option for all students by the end of April. 

The young fives program allowed for some students to start with AAPS’ hybrid model on March 25. AAPS planned to allow for more grades into the building on a weekly basis which allowed for first and second graders to start hybrid as of April 5. The model sets up three cohorts: Cohort A, Cohort B, and Cohort C. Cohort A and Cohort B are for students who want the hybrid model, with “A” students going in-person on Monday and Tuesdays and “B” students going in-person on Thursdays and Fridays. Cohort C students stay completely virtual and interact with students who are doing their virtual-hybrid days. 

Kate Cawley was one of the second graders who went to in-person school for the first time on April 5. Kate was all dressed and packed for school an hour before her mother, Emily Youatt, was even ready to take her. 

“She was so happy and so excited [for the first day of in-person school],” Youatt said. “When she saw her teachers she walked through the doors and didn’t even look back. There was no hesitation, no concern, just pure joy.” 

Even though Youatt saw her daughter flourish during her first day back, she also felt a sense of resignation. 

“I looked around at the other children and they are all taller and older,” Youatt said. “And so there was this moment to reflect on how much we had lost as a community in the last year by not having in-person public education. It was a bittersweet moment.” 

After working through online school with Cawley, Youatt worries about what could happen as a result of virtual learning for younger students. Particularly about Cawley’s reading, writing, and social development skills. 

Even though Cawley learned how to work with technology, which her mother considers to be a plus side of online school, Youatt has also seen potential negative behaviors form to the point that she started to question AAPS. Youatt and her family truly considered other options when AAPS’ school board encouraged looking for a completely virtual model for the rest of the school year at a board meeting in February. She worried about what this might mean for the next school year when she will have not only a third-grader but also a kindergartener. 

“I saw that the prospect of virtual learning for a five-year-old was so overwhelming that I did look at private school options,” Youatt said. “Fundamentally, I am a strong believer and advocate for public education. Just because we could examine another option, that didn’t seem like the right thing to do. I didn’t want to give up on public education, even when I felt like Ann Arbor Public Schools was failing us.” 

On April 6, less than a week before the return date for middle schoolers, AAPS pushed back the date for when middle school and high school students would start in-person learning. The seven middle schools and five high schools are now planning to open their doors on April 26. 

“We hope in the coming days of April to achieve stabilization and a decrease in COVID cases and to vigorously continue the vaccination process among all in our community so that we can safely continue with the spring AAPS reopening plan,” AAPS superintendent Jeanice Swift stated in her April 6 message. 

Within Youatt’s circle of elementary school parents, some of her colleagues have chosen to keep their kids virtual due to safety concerns or worries about the transition to in-person learning. She and the parents around her express frustration with the district’s efforts in times like these.

“This whole time I have felt tremendous energy, support, and engagement from my daughter’s teachers,” Youatt said. “I think what has been really troubling throughout the last year is this gap between the hyper-local experience of my daughter’s teacher, and her principal in our school [with] the school board and the superintendent. It felt like these voices were not talking to one another. I hope there is a way to heal the gaps between our parents and the board of education. I don’t know how those wounds are healed, but I know the wounds are there, and I know that it’s going to take time before there is the level of trust that there was prior to the pandemic.”