What top Michigan teachers say must happen for safe in-person classes

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In January, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said she wished to see Michigan K-12 schools return to in-person instruction by March 1.

Several of the state’s best K-12 front-line instructors, designated as top teachers in various award competitions, say how they think that can happen safely. Some have already been teaching in person. Others are waiting to return.

Janine Scott

Janine Scott, Davis Aerospace Technical High School, Detroit, Michigan, Region 10 Michigan Teacher of the Year 2020-2021, 11th grade math teacher

“So, I am teaching virtually now, no in-class, and the governor said that she would like for all schools to have something open for kids. There’s no way she insinuated nor stated that she wanted schools to start by the first, there’s no way that can happen, and she knows it. So basically, she said that she wanted all schools to have an option for kids who could come in, to come in. It would take teachers to be vaccinated, for me, and proper PPE in the classrooms.” 

— Carter Landis

Jeremy Winsor receives teaching award

Jeremy Winsor, Fulton Middle School and High School Science teacher,  MDE 2020 Region 4 Educator of the Year, 2020 Michigan Farm Bureau Educator of the Year

“My district has been in person for the majority of the school year, but we were forced into virtual learning from Nov. 7 to Dec. 18 due to both illness of staff in the district as well as the governor’s executive order for high school students.

“We were also able to go 1 to 1 with Chromebooks this school year due to the use of community sinking fund dollars, so this has allowed transitions between virtual and face-to-face learning to be less intrusive. But we still struggle with students using masks over the nose and mouth at all times in the classroom.”

— Anna Mizerowski

Shantel VanderGalien, Wyoming Junior High School, English Language Arts, 2020-2021 Region 3 Teacher of the Year 

I am currently teaching in person. We went back to in-person learning mid-January. I believe my district has a comprehensive plan to address the safety of the students and the staff.

“I think every school district having a comprehensive plan is a must and having resources to be able to enact that plan. I know that is different for every individual school district.” 

— Madelyn Darbonne

Stephanie Mellendorf, Oaktree Elementary School, third grade, Michigan Lottery Excellence in Education award winner week of November 2, 2020 

“More money. If you’re trying to follow all the CDC guidelines, classrooms are not set up for that.

“Unless they are going to provide money for [an] increased number of teachers, it’s going to be a challenge. 

“I think they have to have a better way of testing and we (Michigan schools)have to have more support with following the rules as far as having all the equipment, like, they can’t use water fountains, so we have to provide bottled water.” 

— Madelyn Darbonne

Luke Wilcox

Luke Wilcox, East Kentwood High School, math, Michigan Teacher of the Year 2017-2018.

“Yes, I am teaching in-person right now. My school has gone to great lengths to create a safe environment for students (required masks, distanced seating, cleaning supplies etc). The students at East Kentwood have been very responsible about safety.

“Additionally, I just received my second dose of the Moderna vaccine. I am very grateful to Gov. Whitmer for prioritizing teachers for vaccines.”

— Dina Kaur

Marsha Reid, Novi High School, special education, Michigan Lottery Excellence in Education award winner week of Jan. 12, 2021; now in the running for Educator of the Year 

“We’ve been hybrid and virtual all year except when the governor shut the high school down, so our kids have actually been coming since the beginning of the year based on choice. 

“We are looking at numbers and we are looking at metrics every week, the ones that the county puts out, and our K-6 buildings are scheduled to come back five days a week starting Feb. 22.” 

— Madelyn Darbonne

Dr. Gina Pepin, Lemmer Elementary School, Elementary Reading Teacher, Region 1: Upper Peninsula, Michigan Teacher of the Year 2018-19

“We had someone from the local hospital come in and it was part of that initial professional development. They walked and talked us through the CDC guidelines, and I think having those community resources and that community collaboration is something that’s super helpful when numbers do get trivial.

“Have doctors and nurses come in and talk to the children, even high schoolers. Help with the mental health part, like reassure them that they are in a safe place. That’s a huge thing right now. People are really scared. And they are only hearing their parents’ perspective or from their small circle of people … They need to hear from the experts.”

— Leah Ritchie

Chelsee Schram, Laingsburg Elementary School, second grade teacher, Region 6 Michigan Teacher of the Year 2020-2021

“We are face to face for half a day. We do have a virtual option where students are virtual for a half day as well, so we’re doing a little bit of both. I think our school district has taken some really good steps to ensure … staff’s safety and students’ safety. Our students are [as] spread out as [much as] we can.

“Our students have been wearing masks all year even before it was mandated. We’ve made the choice to do half days partially because it eliminates lunch, which is a time where students are going to be unmasked for a long period of time. It also has eliminated them wearing masks for the full day because we know that’s a challenge for kids.” 

— Janelle James

Wendy Tenney
Wendy Tenney

Wendy Tenney, Lowell High School, past orchestra teacher for sophomores, 2018-2019 Michigan Teacher of the Year Region 3

“I have a very unique perspective on this because my school has mostly been in person all year. I am one of a small cohort who has been teaching these students who have elected to be 100% virtual, which is a small portion of our school. But I chose this because of a unique health situation in my family … so I’m all for the purpose of getting schools open and getting kids back in school if they don’t have a unique reason to be especially concerned about the pandemic, like my family does. 

“As a music teacher, we’re so immersed in our department because in that department you take on a lot of administrative roles running a program like that. So it’s been really unique opportunity to get to work with students … and really getting to know those individual families on a deep level because they’re at home, I’m at home and we are communicating in a new way. 

“I’m used to seeing well over 100 students a day, sometimes 200 students in one day. I’m used to the constant chaos and noise of music students. I’m used to team teaching two hours of my day with the middle school orchestra director because we typically have big classes and team teach those together so the isolation of teaching at home and quiet environment … me and my computer is a huge change. I really do miss all the interaction.”

Myesha Johnson

Rick Joseph, Birmingham Schools, 5-6th grade, language arts and social studies, Michigan Teacher of the Year 2015-2016

“The State Department of Health and Human Services Director, Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, has said, based on the evidence, kids tend to spread the disease less than older people and we can safely bring kids back within school five days a week.

“The state has also provided financial incentives for school districts to come back full-time March first. The decision made by our local board of education decided that we, in Birmingham on a 2-5 vote, would come back on March 15th.”

— Casey Mossholder

Tracy Horodyski, Baldwin Street Middle School, assistant principal, 2016-2017 Teacher of the Year at Zinser Elementary School at Kenowa Hills Public Schools. 

“We have been in-person since the start of the school year. We have been in school full time. Except the only time we closed was during that two-and-a-half-week week period November to December. Our district K-12 was closed during the high school closure.

“We follow the back-to-school road map from the health department. Everyone wears a mask all day, every day. During lunch time that is the only time that the students can take off a mask to eat, and we have just done the best we can to space kids out during lunch. So, we space them out every other seat, and spread out our cafeteria into the gym and into the media center. We distance them the best we can that way.

“We do have some students who did opt for virtual learning. That was an option provided by the district for families who didn’t feel comfortable having their student return to school. They might have family members who have compromised immune systems and for some students there was a lot of anxiety, and just wanting to see how things would go before returning.

“We have a separate Eagle Virtual School that started this year K-12. We had a few teachers from our district that actually requested to teach virtually due to their health concerns and we hired new staff, too. It is a much more flexible schedule. They are available for open sessions for a daily basis for students to ask questions.

“There is something about being connected in the same space together. You are part of the shared experience and this environment and different conversations happen that way and there is more accountability in that space, too. You are present, the small moments where teachers can interact with their students one-on-one or small groups and the small and neonce moments are a big part of the actual learning process, and it’s hard to replicate that.”

— Olivia Mazzola

Judith Nixon, Michigan Virtual Japanese and ELA, 2016 Michigan Online Virtual Teacher of the Year

“I am teaching full time right now because schools were desperate for classes. Michigan Virtual literally had to close their enrollment process for some classes because they could not find teachers, normally I would be teaching part time and teaching Japanese. I am teaching English and Japanese full time right now. 

“I have a number of students that I know that are taking full-time online classes. I don’t think that the school district is just going to pull those students out of a class that they are possibly half way through. If it is a school that does trimesters, probably not a problem because the third trimester will start in March. The vast majority of students that I am teaching are semester students and some of them are still going to school part time.

“I have other students tell me, ‘I’m not going to go back to school–not face to face—until everything is taken care of because I see my grandparents all the time and I do not want to make them sick.’” 

— Olivia Mazzola