“It’s the same education in a different space.” East Lansing prepares for in-person instruction

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Taken by Sheldon Krause

The sign outside of East Lansing High School displays, “Keep working hard and supporting each other EL Family!”

As East Lansing prepares to bring students back for in-person learning for the first time, students and teachers alike are anxious to return to normal — but many recognize that it won’t quite be the same.

After nearly a full year of remote learning, East Lansing secondary schools are planning to  return to in-person instruction on March 1. Elementary schools are returning Feb. 22.

East Lansing schools have remained more cautious than most in the nation when it comes to returning to in-person instruction. 

Some students, such as senior Ellie Ngassa, feel more comfortable returning with the knowledge that their school district has acted responsibly over the past year.

“This is our first time going back since March, and I know that Gretchen Whitmer and Dori Leyko, our superintendent, didn’t want us to go back because they didn’t think it was safe,” Ngassa said. “So I think that if we’re going back, they know how safe it’s going to be and that they’re going to put everything in place so that it can be as safe as can be.”

The precautions

School Board Member Elizabeth Lyons detailed the numerous precautions schools are taking to reopen safely.

She noted that about 60% of elementary school students will be returning in-person, while about 50% of high school students will.

“Everyone will have to wear a mask, abiding by the 6-feet rule,” Lyons said. “I know from the CDC guidelines that it can be 3 feet if they can’t do 6 feet, but we are doing everything that we can in each school building to make sure that students are 6 feet apart. That may mean we are using additional spaces other than the classroom.”

“Every student at their desk will have a clear [trifold] board so they have their own space. All students will use their own materials,” she said.

“All of the teachers have been given the chance to be vaccinated,” Lyons added. The school board reported that around 90% of teachers had received at least the first dose of their vaccine. Only 3% said they didn’t plan to receive the vaccine. These instructors will be allowed to return to in-person teaching.

She noted that East Lansing schools were approved for weekly antigen testing for faculty at the schools, with the hope for student testing sometime in the near future. Lyons added she hopes faculty who decided not to receive the vaccine may take advantage of this weekly testing.

East Lansing schools appear to be following most of the guidance suggested by the CDC to safely reopen. Still, some students said they are concerned that their peers may not follow precautions.

“We’re all a bunch of teenagers,” said East Lansing student Emma Cutler. “They’re planning to put a few hundred teenagers who haven’t seen each other in almost a year into a school. There’s no way everybody’s going to follow those protocols, and I’m just hoping they keep enforcing them.”

Ava Schmidt, a high school senior, shared similar concerns about the effectiveness of the safety precautions.

“I just think when we go back, there might be some people who get COVID and they’re just going to have to shut down again,” she said.

Lyons confirmed this possibility, saying the district would work with the local health agencies on a case-by-case basis to determine the appropriate response, such as targeted quarantines or larger shutdowns.

Schmidt, who is vaccinated against COVID-19, said she may not have returned to school had she not been immunized. 

Some students, such as Cutler, have expressed concern about a lack of communication from her school’s administration.

“There’s a lot of unknowns, there’s a lot of stuff they’re not telling us,” she said. “They haven’t really released a lot on their policies. They’ve released that there’s going to be a minimum, but [not] about how many students are going to be in classrooms, how in-between classes is going to work, so I’m just worried about all of that type of stuff that’s been happening.”

Return to normal?

While many students will likely be looking forward to a glimpse of normalcy with the return of in-person instruction, many acknowledge that their experience will be far from normal.

“I feel like there won’t be many new relationships formed and I feel like they won’t be the same just being in school,” said Cutler. “I met some of my best friends in school but I don’t think we would’ve met in circumstances like this.”

The concern about relationship building is shared among instructors, as well.

Cody Harrell, a teacher at East Lansing High School, is worried that the relationship between students and teachers may never fully return to the way it once was. He’s worried the barriers to keep people safe will decrease the quality of education students will receive.

“That is going to be the hardest part. Who am I supposed to be in the classroom now? Am I going to be the same thing just with a taped line in front of my classroom that I have to give myself so I don’t go too close?” said Harrell. “I’m just looking forward to figuring out how to take me and make that work because the best part about teaching, besides just the students and besides just the work, that you get to do is the role you get to play.”

Running out of patience

With constant talk of when life will go back to normal for the past year, students and teachers are tired of waiting. 

“I’m excited because this is my senior year and it has been stolen away from me,” said Sara Loudin. 

As vaccinations roll out to the general public, the question remains if or when things will go back to normal. Will these protocols remain after the pandemic ends? 

Loudin is not optimistic about life returning to normal.

‘Life is permanently changed, and that is really sad,” said Loudin.

Will the education be the same?

Lyons is concerned about students’ safety first, but also the quality of the education they receive. 

“I truly do believe that there are a lot of our teachers who are ready to get back into the classroom, who are ready to be with their kids and teach them in the best way possible in-person,”Lyons said. 

Still, instructor Harrell fears that the ‘new normal’ still won’t be normal enough.

“It is not a better education – it’s the same education in a different space,” said Harrell.

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