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Our series "Mornings in Michigan" captures the sounds of morning rituals and routines from across our state. New episodes are featured during Morning Edition on Michigan Public.

Mornings in Michigan: As kids return to school, families' COVID-19 concerns vary

Arlyssa Heard and her son Judah Shelton drive to Marygrove High School on his first day back to in-person learning.
Erin Allen
Erin Allen
Arlyssa Heard and her son Judah Shelton drive to Marygrove High School on his first day back to in-person learning.

It’s back-to-school season, and in the era of COVID-19, what that looks like depends a lot on where you live. 

As part of our Mornings in Michigan series, producers Erin Allen and Rachel Ishikawa spent time with two families. One has an unvaccinated 7-year-old in a school district that is not requiring masks. The other has a teenager who is vaccinated in a district with a mask mandate.

Day One in Detroit

Tuesday, September 7 was Judah Shelton’s first day back to school, in-person, in 543 days. He’s a 15-year-old sophomore this year at Marygrove High School, which is a part of the Detroit Public Schools Community District. It’s one of many districts in Michigan with a mask mandate.

"Everything that a child can benefit from in the classroom — connecting with other people, building relationships, hands on — all of that is all of the things that [Judah] needs. He didn't have that opportunity last year."
Arlyssa Heard

Judah and his mother, Arlyssa Heard, said getting ready for school was like riding a bike – right back into the groove of things. They did their typical routine: ironing clothes, eating breakfast, taking vitamins, pausing for prayer, and then off the school.

Arlyssa followed the drop-off protocol laid out in an email from Marygrove. And, as she pulled up to campus, she caught a vibe.

"I just really saw a lot of smiling faces today," she said. "Smiling faces on the teachers, the students seem to be excited. I think a lot of students just really wanted to get out of the house and then just get back to what they know as normal. Well, as much as it can be."

As kids return to school, families' COVID-19 concerns vary
Michigan Radio's Erin Allen and Rachel Ishikawa chat with Stateside.

Inside the building

The morning routine may have seemed normal, but some things were different once Judah got into school. He described the safety measures he saw inside.

"I'm not going to lie. We were pretty crowded in the building, so it wasn't really that much social distancing," he said. "But, I think all of the students got tested before they came to the school."

Judah said COVID tests weren’t mandatory, but they did offer them on campus. (DPSCD is requiring weekly COVID testing for all staff, and students with parental consent, regardless of vaccination status.) Everyone was required to wear a mask while indoors, and wear them above the nose — this is where Judah said he gets uncomfortable. He said it's difficult to breathe with a mask on all day.

But that discomfort might be worth it, since the alternative option is virtual school. Arlyssa said staying home was not good for Judah last year.

Erin Allen
Erin Allen
Judah Shelton, sophomore at Marygrove High School

"Judah is a student who benefits from being in person," said Arlyssa. "Everything that a child can benefit from in the classroom — connecting with other people, building relationships, hands on — all of that is all of the things that he needs. He didn't have that opportunity last year. And last year was his first year of high school, which is a milestone. So I was glad to see him back at the school."

But Arlyssa said she’s still worried about Judah's safety, especially since he also plays football.

"Football is a contact sport," said Arlyssa. "You're in close proximity to everybody. Which is, I think, some of the reason why Judah decided to get vaccinated."

Arlyssa left it up to Judah to decide whether to get fully vaccinated. And he said he was kind of hoping to get some super powers out of the deal. But mostly it was for protection against the “what-ifs.”

"What if there comes a new disease?" said Judah. "And what if we're not prepared for that? What if the only survivors were the people with the vaccine?"

Turns out, Judah didn’t turn into the Incredible Hulk. But he does have a lot to look forward to this year, such as "cheesenecking" all his friends.

What is cheesenecking, you ask?

"You slap somebody on the neck and then just run," Judah said. "Or you could just take a wad of cheese, and just [slap them], if you want."

Pandemic or not, some of us still don’t miss high school. For good reason.

A different situation in Brighton

Caitlyn Perry Dial outside her home in Brighton.
Rachel Ishikawa
Caitlyn Perry Dial outside her home in Brighton.

In Brighton, unlike Detroit, there are no mask requirements. So on top of the normal back-to-school jitters, there’s an added layer of stress for some families. Will their kid be the only one masked up?

Caitlyn Perry Dial has been asking this very question. She has two kids and neither are old enough to get the vaccine. Elliott, her oldest, is 7. He’s starting second grade after a year of virtual school. Caitlyn and Elliott recorded a radio diary getting ready for the second day of school.

You can read the transcript below. Caitlyn is usually the first one up in the mornings:

“I make the coffee. And if it's early enough, I can enjoy a little bit of that before the chaos begins. That's kind of like my private time to, you know, have that outward anxiety before they wake up."


In our school district masks are not mandatory, but we’ve done our best to wear our masks and do our part in this pandemic. Alright, it's time to wake up the boys.

“And then once the boys are up, it is basically like a shotgun to the door.

“So this whole lead up to going back in person, it's been teetering on that edge of turmoil within myself and not showing that anxiety to Elliott."


CAITLYN: So I have a question, Elliott. What will you do or how do you think you’ll feel if someone picks on you for wearing a mask?

ELLIOTT: I’ll just tell the teacher.

Elliot's self-portrait done on the first day of school.
Courtesy of Caitlyn Perry Dial
Elliott's self-portrait done on the first day of school.

“First he said he would go tell a teacher and I then kind of pushed him and I said, well, what would you do if you didn't have a teacher around?"


CAITLYN: What would you say to them? 

ELLIOTT : I would say stop doing it. I don’t like it.

“And he said that he would say, 'Stop it. I don't like what you're saying.' And, you know, I think that that is an acceptable answer for a 7 year old."


CAITLYN: So, Elliott, are you ready for day two of school?


CAITLYN: How are you feeling about yesterday?


“You know, it's your child. You know just by looking at them what they're feeling. And so when Elliott says, 'Oh, I feel good," but you can see that he's just kind of shrugging his shoulders and he doesn't have that light in his eyes that he always has when he does feel good, you know that he's just saying that answer to make me happy because he doesn't want me to worry."


CAITLYN: Let’s wait for the bus.

ELLIOTT: The bus.

“I'm proud of Elliott because I know that this has been really hard for him. He did virtual school with a smile on his face, but I'm also proud of him for understanding that it's important to take care of other people.”


CAITLYN: Hey, I love you. And I’m so proud of you. And I know wearing a mask when other kids aren’t wearing masks is kind of stressful, but you don’t want to tell me. Can I have a kiss? Love you.

Erin Allen comes to Michigan Radio as a new producer for the station’s Stateside show. She is an experienced communicator driven by her curiosity about stories of people.
Rachel Ishikawa joined Michigan Public in 2020 as a podcast producer. She produced Kids These Days, a limited-run series that launched in the summer of 2020.
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