(UPDATE: Flint Community Schools decided on Feb. 19, 2021 that students will not return to in-person learning)

Flint, MI— During a three-hour meeting on Feb. 17, Flint School Board members engaged in emotional and, at times, heated discussion concerning staff and students’ return to classrooms on Feb. 22.

At issue was the safety of teachers and staff, who no longer have the option of remote work, and the preparedness of the district. 

“Teachers are afraid. And, for me, as a board member, I’m not sure if I’m in line with the procedure, policy, by laws—and it doesn’t matter to me. Teachers are afraid,” Secretary Danielle Green said. 

The board adopted a hybrid, in-person learning plan on Jan. 20 after Governor Gretchen Whitmer set a statewide goal for districts to offer an in-person learning option no later than March 1. 

The plan passed 5-1 with Treasurer Laura MacIntyre as the sole nay vote. Trustee Diana Wright abstained.

“I am astonished that the teachers’ concerns were not taken into account when we decided to proceed with the hybrid plan,” MacIntyre said. “More teacher input is important.”

But as the date draws near board members said they feel caught between a “rock and a hard place,” as Board President Carol McIntosh put it, sending teachers and students back face-to-face during a pandemic. 

Building Prep is Still Coming Along 

During past board meetings, the administration assured the board facilities would be ready and equipped with all safety procedures in accordance with State of Michigan guidelines for operating safely during the pandemic by Feb. 22.

“I have visited every building and talked to our principals. The buildings are coming along great. COVID teams and leadership teams have worked with them to ensure that processes and procedures are in place,” Assistant Superintendent Kevelin Jones said. 

But with three days before schools reopen, buildings are still being prepped, which raised several concerns for the board. 

Sneeze guards, or plexiglass shields, have arrived at the district but still need to be installed. The district also received 16 cases of PUR Water Filters from the City of Flint which will be installed on all faucets, Director of Operations William Chapman said. 

“Well, I don’t care if the shields are in the district, are they in place and ready to go? Are we going to be able to put shields up in two days?… How are we going to attach the shields to the desks? Are we going to take hammer and nails and just start banging them on? There is no protocol right now,” MacIntyre said.  

One staff member, Tyeisha Cox, a mathematics teacher, submitted a public comment asking when teachers will receive personal protective equipment. 

“When will teachers receive hand sanitizers, disinfecting wipes and additional masks for their classrooms?” Cox wrote. Neither the administration nor the board responded.

Board members also raised concerns about air filters citing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation that increased ventilation can reduce the concentration and spread of viral particles.

“All the air filters in every building were changed. And as far as the air purifiers they are set to be shipped out on [March 1.] These are just an extra level of security, so to speak,” Chapman said. 

Flint Schools’ water is still unsafe to drink. But district officials have said they hope to complete testing on 81 ultraviolet water filtration systems donated by tech billionaire Elon Musk soon. 

Testing should have been finished last week, according to Chapman’s estimations during the Jan. 20 board meeting. It is not known when they will be ready for use. Until then, the district will be distributing water bottles to students. 

Teachers’ Concerns 

Community member Keishaun Wade, a Flint schools alum who was offered a full-ride scholarship to Cornell University, said he didn’t understand why sending students and staff back to schools was a “topical conversation.” 

“I haven’t heard the board talk about any testing. I’ve only heard about temperature checks. We know that 40-50% of people who test positive for COVID are asymptomatic. So, a temperature check would be ineffective… We don’t have enough teachers in our district as it is. And you’re endangering the teachers by forcing them to work in these conditions and by not having proper testing available,” Wade said. 

At the Feb. 10 meeting, board members asked the administration to conduct a confidential survey of teachers about the cleanliness of buildings and to voice their concerns. The survey was not completed because board members did not take an official vote, Steward said. 

However, United Teachers of Flint has been working with teachers to compile a list of questions and concerns. A total of 54 questions were emailed to the board and administration.  

“There’s 54 questions that these teachers are concerned about. And all this stuff on this agenda is not that important when it comes to these kids. It’s important, but we got to get to the bottom of this. And we can’t put this on hold,” Assistant Secretary and Treasurer Joyce Ellis-McNeal said. 

Michigan Education Association UniServ Director Bruce Jordan, who works closely with the UTF said many questions have already been answered by the administration. 

“These questions were not submitted to [the board] to make sure that you answer all of them. But to give you the information of the questions that teachers have already asked and gotten answers to…Ms. Steward and Mr. Jones and the entire administration team, as well as the leadership of UTF have been working very collaboratively, very hand-in-hand in trying to get the district ready for in-person learning with the kids coming back,” Jordan said. “We’re really moving in the right direction as far as getting the questions answered that we need.”

Green said that in addition to the questions that haven’t been addressed, she received several emails from teachers and staff stating they weren’t ready to return. 

“It’s mind boggling to me that the administration is like, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re ready to go.’ Teachers feel completely opposite…it’s something being missed,” Green said. 

Trustee Adrian Walker said he toured some of the schools and spoke to teachers in person. 

“I walked through Holmes and Brownell and I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw in terms of the things that were in place…I got a chance to talk to a number of teachers and they weighed in on the topic one way or another,” Walker said. “I put my trust in the teachers’ union and the administration to come together about the plan.”  

Board Considers Pushing Back Start Date, Tensions Flare

Given the high level of uncertainty, Green suggested the district push back the start date to Mar. 1 until the board has time to address teachers’ concerns.  

“In my opinion, the February 22 date no longer works for me. If you seriously want to consider what the staff is feeling or what they’re concerned about, there’s no way that we can go back February 22. I’ve talked to families who are anxious to go back, but we promised them certain things to be safe or to feel safe. And if somebody is asking for wipes and sanitizer, I’m very concerned,” Green said. 

Ellis-McNeal and MacIntyre echoed Green’s sentiments. 

But Wright said overseeing teacher surveys and building supplies were not the responsibilities of the board of education.

“I think that we’re sort of moving toward dealing with the operations of the district rather than the governance of the district. When we start wanting to skip over unions and do direct surveys…I think we need to be careful about trying to create a whole different procedure for how things should work because this is a union issue,” Wright said. 

MacIntyre said she respectfully disagreed.

“I’ve been getting texts from teachers, some of whom have attached their names, some of them that have contacted me anonymously, who are afraid to speak out for fear of retaliation…The union is responding, I think rightfully so, to an issue of trying to open schools without input from the teachers and taking it upon themselves to do the job that, I think, the school administration should have been doing in the first place,” MacIntyre said. 

Vice President Vera Perry agreed with Wright that interfering with the union duties wasn’t the board’s role. 

“We cannot be in the middle of this. Because now, it’s like we’re taking over the duties. And I’m just going to make a joke about it, at $30 a meeting I don’t want to be in the middle of their operations,” Perry said. 

MacIntyre said the board’s involvement was “warranted.”

“The other thing that I really wanted to say is that it’s been suggested implied, stated, whatever by Miss Perry that we’re micromanaging and we get no—”

“Hold on,” Perry interrupted. McIntosh called for order. 

“You keep my name out of your mouth,” Perry told MacIntyre. 

“Miss Perry, you heard me tell her ‘order,’” McIntosh said. 

“I know I’m out of order, I know I am. But you better stop that heffa. You better stop her,” Perry said. 

Some board members stated that if the date was pushed back, the district might stand to lose federal funding. 

However, William DiSessa, spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Education said there would be “no loss of state of federal funding for schools that do not offer an in-person learning option by March 1.” 

McNeal cried as she told board members their decision is a life-or-death matter. 

“We’re not talking about teachers, we’re talking about human beings that have to go home, they have to take care of their family. And I don’t want them to have to bury anybody else. So, if it’s not safe, if I cry, you can laugh at me, you can talk about me, but I’m not crying for pity. I’m crying out for mercy,” she said. 

Wright said that changing the start date could impact families who have made plans to return. 

After further discussion, the board decided to keep the Feb. 22 return date in place. They agreed that if kids could return to schools, the board would resume in-person meetings at Southwestern.

41.1% of students will return to schools on Monday, according to a district survey.  

“I’m hoping that our administration, Mr. Chapman, and all parties concerned work overtime to do their due diligence, because I don’t expect any students to go back to school and the [sneeze guards] aren’t even up. That would be an atrocity. I have confidence that they’ll get it together…We have a responsibility to our community, we have a responsibility to our students to make the best decisions we can make. And that’s what I’m expecting from all of us,” McIntosh told board members before she adjourned the meeting. 

The next board meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, March 10, 2021 at 6:30 p.m.

Carmen Nesbitt is a journalist with diverse experience in news reporting and feature writing. She wrote for Hour Detroit and SEEN Magazine before joining the Flint Beat news team as an education and public...