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After nearly a year at home, learning how to do school safely in Dearborn

Beenish Ahmed
Michigan Radio


A group of second-graders walked to their classroom at William Ford Elementary School in Dearborn following flourescent arrows on the floor to guide them on how much distance to keep between one another. 

“Remember, as you're walking, you're looking down at the arrows and then you're getting too close,” Mariam Albachachy, a second grade teacher, tells her students as they make their way to their classroom after months of online learning. 

Dearborn Public Schools started to phase in a return to in-person instruction earlier this month with short “learning labs,” and teachers at William Ford Elementary are using their first moments with students to teach them new safety protocols developed to try and limit the spread of COVID-19. 

About 600 students will be returning to the classroom at that school, with the remaining 50 or so opting to continue remote-only learning when the school begins offering hybrid learning March 1. 

Middle and high school students in Dearborn will be phased back into their classrooms later in the month. All grades will be divided in two, with classrooms at half capacity for two days a week of in-person instruction, and three days a week of remote learning. 

The Dearborn Board of Education announced the plan to phase in classroom instruction earlier this month after the positivity rate on COVID-19 tests in Wayne County fell below 5%, and the city’s standing in the COVID risk matrix improved. 

For Albachachy, the decision to teach in-person was made easier by the school district’s efforts to ensure that any teacher who wanted the COVID vaccine could get inoculated.

“I do have older parents at home, so having the vaccine and being able to get it makes me more comfortable being in my classroom,” she said, adding that she feels the shot will help keep both her students and her family safe from the virus. 

Credit Beenish Ahmed / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio

For William Ford Principal David Higgins, immunizations for staff are just one part of a school safety plan that includes everything from limiting the number of students entering the school from each entrance to hand sanitizer stations at every exit. 

Higgins has also had to rethink lunchtime, which was when he connected with students before the pandemic. 

“I'm usually sitting at a table with them,” said Higgins, who has been a principal for nearly a decade. “And, you know, the kindergartners would hand me a chicken nugget or something.” 

Now, Higgins said, he’ll spend the first few days back reminding students not to get too close to classmates they haven’t shared a space with in months. 

The learning labs have offered an opportunity to troubleshoot before students return to their classrooms for hybrid learning. “All we're doing through this time is reviewing protocol,” Higgens said. 


Credit Beenish Ahmed / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Zeinab Beydoun, a kindergarten teacher at William Ford Elementary School, said her students are readily adjusting to the new social distancing guidelines in place across Dearborn public schools.

It’s also given teachers a chance to rework their lessons to bring them in line with social distancing guidelines. Kindergarten teacher Zeinab Beydoun spent the hours before her students arrived for their learning lab putting together baskets of craft supplies for each student. The baskets will only be used by one student and sanitized regularly to prevent the possibility of spreading the virus with glue sticks or scissors.

“For little kids, they're excited to have their own things I've noticed,” Beydoun said. “They're like ‘I have my own basket, I have my own crayons. This is awesome.’” 

Sharing is a lesson that will have to wait until after the pandemic is over, but how to wear a mask properly – that’s something every student has to learn before they can come back to school. Beydoun has had her students practice wearing masks at home during remote learning lessons, and spent time “showing them this is the wrong way to do it, this is the right way to do it,” she said. “I had them all actually put it on.”

There’s a lot that’s different for kids who are heading back to school at William Ford Elementary and other Dearborn schools in the coming weeks. 

Mariam Albachachy, the second grade teacher, told her students there will be no more drinking from water fountains, or playing tag at recess; no more story time on a colorful rug, and no more homemade cupcakes for birthday parties. 

After going over all those new rules Albachachy asked her students if they had any questions. 

Cila Hammoud, a girl with curly hair and a tie-dye facemask, raised her hand.

“Are we still going to be doing pajama day?” she asked. 

Albachachy asked Principal Higgins what he thought of that. “I don’t see why not,” he said. 

Beenish Ahmed is Michigan Public's Criminal Justice reporter. Since 2016, she has been a reporter for WNYC Public Radio in New York and also a freelance journalist. Her stories have appeared on NPR, as well as in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, VICE and The Daily Beast.
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