Flushing parents push for return to full in-person classroom learning

FLUSHING — As COVID-19 cases slowly begin to drop countywide, many families are urging Flushing Community Schools to consider returning students to fulltime face-to-face instruction.

During the Feb. 9 Flushing School Board meeting, several parents called for the district to move from its current hybrid format to a five-day in-person schedule. Some voiced concerns about the difficulty that online learning is having on their children, while others questioned the school’s decision to remain on a hybrid schedule when other local districts—such as New Lothrop, Clio and Swartz Creek—have transitioned to more in-person learning since January.

“If the spread of the virus among school-aged children is not a big concern, we must get them into the classroom as soon as possible,” said Lindsay Caterer, a mother of three students in the district. “When you see the other schools doing it safely, why can’t we do it?”

Flushing parents Steven and Erika Spaleny, who also spoke at the meeting, have started an online petition to urge the district to return to a five-day in-person format with a virtual learning option. The Spalenys, who have two kids in the district, said that the instructional/social benefits of having students back in school outweigh the risks posed by COVID-19.

“We’re seeing the emotional distress for kids who are struggling at home with online classes,” said Erika Spaleny. “They’re tired of looking at a screen all day and they want to be with their classmates.”

A separate petition drive entitled “Let Flushing Schools Decide Instruction Options Based on Science” has also been started by other FCS parents to support Flushing’s hybrid format.

Under the district’s current hybrid plan, students with a last name beginning with the letters A through K are attending in-person classes on Mondays and Thursdays, while students with last names ranging from L to Z are reporting to class on Tuesdays and Fridays. Wednesdays are designated for virtual learning with an FCS teacher.

Students can also opt to take a 100 percent online learning option throughout the semester. Currently, 71 percent of FCS students are taking in-person classes, while 29 percent have opted for 100 percent online learning.

FCS Superintendent Matt Shanafelt said that the district is getting closer to allowing students back five days a week for instruction, but more progress must be made against the virus in Genesee County.

“COVID-19 cases have continued to trend negatively in the county, and we’ve seen very low numbers of COVID positive students,” he said. “But for that trend to keep going, we need to continue practicing social distancing in our classrooms and buildings. That won’t be possible if the district returns to in-person classes four to five days a week.”

Shanafelt said that quarantines and contact tracing are still a looming threat to the district and in-person learning. Two weeks ago, a single positive case at Flushing High School forced 19 students and staff—plus the high school wrestling team—to quarantine.

Shanafelt also said that the safety of teachers must be considered with any expansion of in-person learning. So far, over 160 of the district’s 500-plus employees have received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, which Shanafelt said is an encouraging sign toward the implementation of fulltime in-person instruction.

After hearing public comments, the school board voted 6-1 to continue the hybrid learning plan. Trustee Kimberly Strnad, who made the lone dissenting vote, said that she understands the district’s stance of protecting children and teachers from the virus, but she’s concerned about the hybrid format’s long-term social and mental impact on students.

“We keep talking about what’s in the best interest of the kids, but I wonder if we’re accelerating other problems,” said Strnad. “I’m hearing from many parents in the community who worry about their kids struggling with mental health and being depressed because they’re removed from their social circles. It’s a hard line for us to toe.”

Shanafelt said that while the district will continue to follow guidance from the Genesee County Health Department as it explores a path to full in-person learning, he and other administrators will be responsive to concerns expressed by parents and teachers.

“We greatly appreciate getting as much feedback and response as possible,” he said. “Just because the plan isn’t changing doesn’t mean that we’re not listening.”

Links to the petitions “Help Get Our Kids in School 5F2F” and “Let Flushing Schools Decide Instruction Options Based on Science” can be found on change.org.