Grand Rapids welcomes students for in-person classes after months online-only

GRAND RAPIDS, MI – Grand Rapids fourth grader Penelope Lock is finally getting what she asked for on this year’s Christmas list: Going back to school in-person. The 9-year-old’s dad, Ian Lock, said Penelope struggled with taking classes remotely and not learning face-to-face with her teacher. She also missed seeing […]

GRAND RAPIDS, MI – Grand Rapids fourth grader Penelope Lock is finally getting what she asked for on this year’s Christmas list: Going back to school in-person.

The 9-year-old’s dad, Ian Lock, said Penelope struggled with taking classes remotely and not learning face-to-face with her teacher. She also missed seeing her friends at C.A. Frost Elementary School.

So, when Grand Rapids Public Schools finally announced it would reopen for in-person learning in January after months online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Lock family was quick to sign up.

“She’s very happy to be here,” Ian Lock said about Penelope. “This was one of the items on her Christmas list, to be able to go back to school.”

Penelope Lock was one of thousands of Grand Rapids students who were finally welcomed back to the classroom on Tuesday, Jan. 19.

The school district of 14,509 students has conducted fully remote classes since the school year started in August. Around two-thirds of GRPS families have opted for the new in-person learning option, district spokesperson John Helmholdt said.

Administrators had initially planned to welcome students back after the first nine weeks of remote learning, but twice delayed the start of in-person learning because of coronavirus-related safety concerns.

More than 800 students left the school district this year because of the pandemic, many seeking different learning options than what GRPS was offering.

But Lock said he thinks the delay of in-person learning by GRPS was worth the wait.

“It was very worth the wait because I don’t think the rest of Michigan was doing a very good job of keeping it under control,” he said.

“I would have loved to have gone back in August. That would have been the desired choice. But you saw all the numbers going up getting into the fall, and I’m like, I don’t want to keep my kids stuck in a classroom with the chances of getting sick.”

While Grand Rapids mom Ashley Bentley agreed that it was worth the wait for safety reasons, she said she’s been ready to send her fourth grade daughter, Jada Hardy, back to the classroom since August. Bentley said because of her job, it was hard to have her 9-year-old doing learning remotely during the fall.

“I’m working a lot,” said Bentley, who is an assistant manager at a gas station. “My grandma was helping me out, but I’m ready to have her back in school.”

Bentley said she thinks Jada will learn better in-person than she did in the virtual classes for East Leonard Elementary School.

“In virtual, they’re just writing and they’re not learning anything,” she said. “As a four grader she’s a little behind in reading. But I’m hearing the same from other parents, too. I got one parent who said her daughter got no work done online. So I guess the kids are behind, so we gotta go back to school.”

Justine Williams also said she worries about her two daughters falling behind because of remote learning. Her daughter Jaionna Williams, 9, is in third grade and Jaliyah Beasley, 7, is in first grade at East Leonard Elementary.

“I don’t feel learning on the computer is helping them much because their progress reports were really bad,” Justine Williams said. “They missed school, their friends and teachers. They just were ready to get out of the house.”

But Justine Williams said she still has health-related concerns about sending her girls back to school amid the pandemic.

“I feel iffy about in-person learning,” she said. “Cases are still rising.”

Justine Williams isn’t alone in her fears about COVID-19 in school buildings. Around one-third of families at East Leonard Elementary opted to keep their kids home for remote learning, said Principal Tammi Jenkins.

“Some families are still hesitant about sending their kids back, so they chose the virtual option, and we just need to respect that decision and welcome them when they’re ready to come back,” she said. “But we are so excited to welcome students back.”

“It feels like a long-awaited holiday where we’ve been waiting and waiting to see our loved ones. Still last night, several of the staff members and I were texting just about how excited we are to finally see them.”

GRPS was one of the few public school districts in Michigan to remain fully virtual throughout the fall. That list included Muskegon, Kalamazoo, Lansing and Ann Arbor.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has called for all schools to reopen for some kind of in-person learning by March 1. She said Jan. 8 the goal is for every student to have the option of face-to-face learning, especially for younger children.

RELATED: Michigan governor calls for in-person learning to resume by March 1

GRPS had already announced its plans to return to the classroom in January before the governor’s announcement.

The district’s back-to-school learning plan includes mask mandates for students and staff, and classrooms at 50{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} capacity. Students were divided into two cohorts and each group will come to school for in-person classes two days a week. The district’s schedule for both hybrid and virtual classes is available here.

GRPS launched a COVID-19 data dashboard this month, which shows the countywide data administrators use to make school-related decisions during the pandemic. The district also released a parent handbook on what to do if a student tests positive, daily student health screening expectations and symptom reminders.

To help you navigate this complicated school year, we’re pleased to offer you a simpler way to get all of your education news: Our new Michigan Schools: Education in the COVID Era newsletter delivered right to your inbox. To receive this newsletter, simply click here to sign up.

More on MLive:

Grand Rapids, Muskegon school leaders ‘applaud’ governor’s calls for in-person learning

COVID-19 pandemic cuts Grand Rapids schools enrollment by more than 800 students

Grand Rapids area hit by wave of school superintendent retirements amid COVID-19

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