Are Michigan schools safe to reopen? Here’s what science and doctors say

Confusion is rampant about whether classrooms in the age of the coronavirus are safe. (Shutterstock photo)


School leaders in Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor and Lansing have decided it’s unsafe to bring students back to classrooms. But Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey says kids generally don’t get sick from the coronavirus and should return to school.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order capping attendance at in-door social gatherings at 10 people because of safety concerns. But another executive order has no capacity limit or social distancing requirement for school classrooms.

Confused? You’re not alone.

With the start of the school year just weeks away, parents are getting mixed messages about what is safe — and what isn’t — for their children’s education.

One reason is that the coronavirus is a new disease and scientists are still learning about it. For example, in February and March, medical experts said the public didn’t need to wear masks; now, as science has evolved, Michigan and numerous other states require them in public settings.

Another reason: different studies have at times shown different results. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently warned against the use of hydroxychloroquine in the treatment of COVID-19, while a study conducted at Henry Ford Health System in Detroit found the drug lowered the death rate among coronavirus patients.

Now, Michigan parents are facing a dizzying mix of messages about school safety. Some districts are planning to return all students to classrooms (with remote learning options for those who aren’t comfortable returning during the pandemic), while sometimes neighboring districts are beginning the school year with fully remote learning, similar to how all Michigan K-12 districts  ended the school year this spring.

“There’s so much out there, even I get confused,” said Peter Gulick, an infectious disease expert at Michigan State University.

Here’s where we stand as of the end of July:

What does Michigan require schools to do this fall?

Whitmer’s school reopening plan, developed with the guidance of a 25-member task force of school and health officials, allows schools to make their own decisions about whether they will offer instruction only remotely (through online lessons or printed materials), in person, or a hybrid model. If schools bring students back into classrooms, there are minimum health protocols schools must meet. For instance, in the state’s current pandemic Phase 4, teachers and staff must wear face masks, as well as students in middle and high school.

If the situation improves and the state moves to Phase 5, those requirements become “strong recommendations.” If the state lurches back to Phase 3, all schools close again.

What are schools choosing to do?

Whether your child can attend classes in person or will return to homebound lessons depends on where you live. Two of the state’s largest school districts, Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids, are starting the year online. So are at least five school districts in Ingham County. Many of the school districts in west Michigan’s populous Kent County are returning to classrooms five days a week. Many districts in Oakland County are leaning in that same direction.

Are school-age children at risk of contracting coronavirus?

Children can become infected, but it appears they contract COVID-19 at lower rates than adults.

In Michigan, just 6.6 percent of confirmed coronavirus cases are residents ages 0-19. That’s close to the national average of 7.1 percent of cases among those ages 0-17.

“The data isn’t perfect, but the evidence we do have supports that young kids seem to be less likely to get COVID,” said Dr. Aubree Gordon, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan.

If my child catches COVID in school, will they get seriously ill?

Probably not. People under the age of 18 who contract the coronavirus generally have either no symptoms or only slight symptoms.

In Michigan, there have been four COVID-related deaths among people ages 0-19, out of 6,191 deaths.

Can kids spread it to others, like school teachers and grandparents?

Yes. A study out of South Korea suggests that children under the age of 10 don’t spread the virus at the same rate as adults. A big caveat: middle- and high-schoolers are just as likely to infect those around them as adults, Gordon said.

And if they spread the virus to adults, those adults are more likely to get seriously ill.

A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association says the closing of schools across the country this spring likely saved  thousands of lives.

The young kids aren’t going to get that sick,” said MSU’s Gulick. “The problem is, they take this same virus home to their elders or the poor teacher up front (of the classroom) who may be older or have underlying conditions.

“If we could contain them in the classroom and have them sleep there, there wouldn’t be a problem,” Gulick said.

Why are weddings limited to 10 people for safety, but my child’s classroom can have 30 kids?

The difference, explains U-M’s Gordon, is the age of the people in those gatherings.

“Ten young children is not the same risk as 10 adults,” Gordon said. Children are less likely to get infected, and less likely to get seriously ill if they do catch the virus.

Gordon also suggests that families — and policymakers — weigh the value of public gatherings versus the risk. “Education has a high value,” Gordon said, and a lower COVID risk compared to gatherings of adults.

“Each time you go do anything, you go to the grocery store, even if you wear a mask, there’s some amount of risk and some probability of transmission occurring,” Gordon said. “It’s not just how risky an interaction is, but how vital those interactions are. We all have to get food, that’s vital. But going to a theater or a pool or a wedding, that’s very nice but probably not necessary.”

Homebound learning is safer, but how good is the ‘learning’?

A recent national poll by The Kaiser Family Foundation found that parents were worried about the safety of their children, families and school teachers and staff if schools reopen this fall. But Michigan parents have expressed concerns about whether their children will fall behind academically if they are trying to learn multiplication tables at their kitchen table rather than classrooms.

Michigan families gave mixed reviews to this spring’s pandemic-induced homebound learning, according to a poll of Michigan parents of K-12 students conducted by Public Sector Consultants for Bridge. School leaders have acknowledged that the remote instruction offered in the spring – created on the fly when schools were ordered closed in mid-March – was not as robust as what students would have received in the classroom.

One study suggested that students will return to classrooms in the fall with 70 percent of learning gains in reading that they would typically have had in the previous school year, and less than 50 percent of learning gains in math.

Schools have now had months to strengthen online learning options, in the anticipation that some, if not all, students will be homebound this fall.

An MSU report suggests that students can learn as much through online learning as in-person learning, if online learning allows students to interact with the teacher and other students and allows students to work at their own pace. Other studies comparing academic achievement between online and in-person classes show mixed results

School leaders acknowledge that remote learning in most cases won’t be as academically rewarding for most students as a normal classroom experience. But they point out that in-person instruction this year will be far from normal, too, with most students wearing face masks, eating lunch at their desks and greatly reduced interaction with classmates.

“A lot of the benefit of in-person schooling is not here,” said Owen Bondono, Michigan’s Teacher of the Year for 2020-21.

 My child’s school is reopening. What kind of mask is best?

The masks that offer the most protection are N95 masks, says MSU’s Gulick.

Gordon recommends cloth masks with multiple layers of material.

A key for children: finding masks that fit their faces and are comfortable to wear for hours at a time.

“A mask isn’t going to do any good for your child if they aren’t wearing them because they’re not comfortable wearing them,” Gordon said.

Gordon bought eight different masks for her two elementary-aged daughters to try on, to find ones that they liked and fit on their faces properly. “Make sure it fits well, so they can talk and when they talk it doesn’t come off their nose,” Gordon said.

Here’s a good breakdown of various face masks.

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Fri, 07/31/2020 - 12:59am

I wonder what is safe, "School leaders in Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor and Lansing have decided it’s unsafe to bring students back to classrooms."
Does it mean the same risk as kids have for the 'flu', mumps, measles, chickenpox, or does it mean zero risk of contacting covid 19 or is it about zero risk of death or zero risk that they may bring it home.
Why aren't they specific in explaining what they mean when saying it is 'unsafe'? Were the doctors and schools less concerned about the students when polio what infecting children, and that was much more devastating to families and communities and they kept the schools open? Were they less concern before there were vaccines for measles, mumps, and chicken pox and they kept the schools open?
If they don't describe what is safe and unsafe how will we know when it is time to reopen the schools? If they can't or won't describe to the public what 'safe' and 'unsafe', can we be sure that the professionals do agree on what 'safe' and 'unsafe' or do we have to wait until the lawyer take it to court and the Supreme Court has to decide, and how many years will that take?

Fri, 07/31/2020 - 4:42pm

Why would lawyers take this to the Supreme Court? What grounds? "Safe" is what the local elected school officials say through their superintendent.

Kids are vectors infecting others. Kids can learn better at home because they can learn at their own pace combined with online teacher interaction. Did you bother to read the article or are you just posting the same stuff you posted on other school threads? You should read the articles and show some critical thinking, rather than just "cut and paste" talkingpoints.

[Can kids spread it to others, like school teachers and grandparents?

Yes. A study out of South Korea suggests that children under the age of 10 don’t spread the virus at the same rate as adults. A big caveat: middle- and high-schoolers are just as likely to infect those around them as adults, Gordon said.

And if they spread the virus to adults, those adults are more likely to get seriously ill.

A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association says the closing of schools across the country this spring likely saved thousands of lives.

“The young kids aren’t going to get that sick,” said MSU’s Gulick. “The problem is, they take this same virus home to their elders or the poor teacher up front (of the classroom) who may be older or have underlying conditions.

“If we could contain them in the classroom and have them sleep there, there wouldn’t be a problem,” Gulick said.]

Sure, make the kids sleep at school. Then everyone can focus on the economy.................

Marlene Augst
Sat, 08/01/2020 - 7:45am

Nothing of what you said is based on facts or science and Superintendent ONLY have a say in phase 4&5. Did you even READ the article? 50% of kids up North have no internet access, THE INFRASTRUCTURE IS NOT THERE. In addition on line learning showed A 50% TO 70% REDUCTION IN LEARNING.

Mon, 08/03/2020 - 5:11am

I agree the infrastructure is not there. So BUILD it! It would make more sense for the state to spend money on providing broadband across the state and replacing the old government computers with new ones the at have safeguards against cyber security breaches and fraud protections than just keep doling out fraudulent unemployment checks. Republicans like you should want these things to spawn new business, help existing businesses to grow, promote a better educated workforce, and to maintain "law and order, fiscal responsibility. Instead our Republican controlled legislature is doing NOTHING useful or productive. Read the latest about our embarrassing legislature:

"Republican state senator who sought repeal of emergency law tests positive for coronavirus"'

Sat, 08/01/2020 - 6:16pm

Unless it is formally defined it is what each of us perceive it to be, so that opens it to the lawyers and the courts.
The lawyers are already filing case for people getting covid 19 claiming where they got it and who they can sue. Without a well defined description of safe then each case will be creating a definition of 'safe' to support their lawsuit claims which will lead to appeals and the courts deciding.

Fri, 07/31/2020 - 7:41am

This is the most balanced article on this issue I have read. However, Bridge might consider looking at studies in Europe--such as Germany--where schools have already opened and did not result in the spread. I am not sure about the academic article cited here since it is more theoretical. Actual studies of children in school during the pandemic might be more persuasive. We need more big picture analysis and less fear mongering from the media overall. It seems that many media outlets are too willing to indulge in worst case scenarios from limited data, which is destructive to parents, teachers etc full of anxiety about the fall

Fri, 07/31/2020 - 4:55pm

Well that wasn't the case in Israel and there was even a problem here in Detroit and Warren where they held summer school. You might want to check your own biases.

George Hagenauer
Fri, 07/31/2020 - 9:19am

While thanks to politics we tend to be focused on hydroxychloroquine - the more important studies are happening overseas (where due to centralized health databases it is easier to study these issues) on long term effects of the virus. A several months out study in Germany just released showed significant damage to the heart in Covid19 survivors and the study included people who were not hospitalized. End result could be a while lot more disabled people in the near future and a smaller workforce. I think the study was mainly of adults. Because of the milder infection rates and lack of testing we may not know if there are long term effects on children.

Safety First
Fri, 07/31/2020 - 9:50am

"School leaders in Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor and Lansing have decided it’s unsafe to bring students back to classrooms." Hoping Livonia, Dearborn, Warren, Troy, Southfield do the same.

Fri, 07/31/2020 - 10:29am

A follow up story may be in order about teachers who have decided to quit so as not to endanger their health by having to teach face-to-face. I recall The Bridge reported on a teacher survey a few months ago. I wonder what the reality is now compared to the survey, given that opening schools is more imminent.

(As a corollary to this, people who are making very difficult, economically-devastating decisions to leave jobs in order to not contract COVID are not counted in unemployment data. Thus,the reality of unemployment and the economy is even worse than it appears to be.)

David Murray
Fri, 07/31/2020 - 1:52pm

I wonder if the notion that children don't spread the disease so easily considers that children were staying at home from about March through June and not in group settings. They didn't have the same level of exposure or opportunity that most adults did and continue to have. Children do spread viruses easily, that's why so many schools in northern Michigan were closed either for several days or even up to a week or so in late winter. Yes the flu itself is different from Covid-19, but the children were in school then and did pass the virus. I don't know any answer nor am I making any suggestion as to the answers. And the debate will continue and hopefully with sound data, careful thought and understanding of people's real fears and worries.

Splitting hairs
Fri, 07/31/2020 - 5:03pm

I agree, but also want to emphasize, "A big caveat: middle- and high-schoolers are just as likely to infect those around them as adults, Gordon said." Who are we kidding? People feel comfortable believing most children "won't die", like we should find comfort in that alone. Children like you said were in isolation, but more importantly MOST "children" are vectors who spread the disease just as much as adults. How many children will infect their parents? How will they be able to study while their parent are on ventilators or worse, dead? People need to think back to last March and get SERIOUS. This is NO JOKE.

Fri, 07/31/2020 - 4:58pm

Rose, don't hold your breath. Very few if any schools will open face to face this fall.

Fri, 07/31/2020 - 2:54pm

We (America) should follow what schools in Europe are doing. Some have even never stopped having school. Keeping American children out of school Is and Will be bad for them. They have done studies to show children do Much worse after being out of school and then trying to "catch up" going back. And there is the proof that not being "social" is bad and the possibilities of physical abuse and suicide increase with increased quarantining. Its just NOT safe or good for them to stay home for so long. American schools are already WAY behind on academics compared to other nations. Send them back!!

Enough with lies
Fri, 07/31/2020 - 5:07pm

Citations please! In Europe the virus was under control, unlike here where the numbers of cases are sky high and increasing.

Israeli Data Show School Openings Were a Disaster That Wiped Out Lockdown Gains:
Of 1,400 Israelis diagnosed with COVID-19 last month, 657 (47 percent) were infected in schools. Now 2,026 students, teachers, and staff have it, and 28,147 are quarantined.

Louisa G
Fri, 07/31/2020 - 4:34pm

My daughters used to scream until we cut off the tags on their clothing. I can't imagine them wearing a face mask all day!

Mon, 08/03/2020 - 9:40am

I have a 3 year old and a 7 year old that both understand the importance of wearing a mask when in public. It's not hard to teach kids this and to lead by example.

Fri, 07/31/2020 - 8:25pm

We hear plenty of "it's not safe ", but how do we quantify that? What number out there will be considered safe? Zero? Not going to happen. I get it, people are afraid, but what magic number will make it okay to open schools? If we waited for statistics to say its 100% safe to drive a car, we would be a nation of walkers. It's all about mitigating risk because we can never eliminate it. For driving it speed limits, seatbelts, and preparation to learn the rules of the road and drivers education. For opening up schools during a pandemic its masks, good hygiene, cohorting, and education on the what-to -do's and the what-not-to- do's to protect yourself and others. Does anyone out there actually think things will better in October? January? Next March? And what does better even look like? We are currently at zero infections of kids in schools and zero in kids deaths from being exposed in schools in the US. If we want to keep those numbers at zero we will have to reinvent our educational system and close all of the buildings and keep learning at home or we can wait out the virus. Or we mitigate risk based on what experts are telling us, put on our big boy pants, and cautiously open back up realizing we may have to make some changes once kids are back in class.

Sat, 08/01/2020 - 7:27pm


Marlene Augst
Sat, 08/01/2020 - 7:39am

The only way this is going to work is if old people and unhealthy people wear a mask EVERYWHERE including TGEIR HOME. The home is responsible for being the biggest spreader. These kids are being harmed in order to protect the old and unhealthy. So instead of kids being denied the right to build their immune system to this and MANY OTHER viruses, those at risk should TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR THIS, not kids.

middle of the mit
Sat, 08/01/2020 - 6:56pm


Does that mean if we do what you say we should, You will stop blaming Governor Gretchen for all the deaths and the GOP will take the responsibility they have been heaping on the Governor?

Oh no! You are going to blame the old and sick! But what about all the "concern" you have been espousing over the last few months about how the Governor treated those same olds and sick?

According to you.............They are responsible for themselves!

What a society Republicans endorse.

Tue, 08/04/2020 - 8:40am

Why is it only about blame with you, don't blame the Governor and blame the Republicans, when do you ever concern yourself with solving the problem [people getting back to work, people staying/getting healthy! In all I have read of you comments I am yet to hear you talk about solving a problem, why?

middle of the mit
Tue, 08/11/2020 - 7:04pm


You keep asking this question of me : middle,
Why is it only about blame with you

But don't you see that IS the game the GOP plays?

When your party starts looking towards solutions instead of pinning blame on anyone but themselves?

Then me and you can talk about that!

I call BS
Sat, 08/01/2020 - 7:32pm

You seem to be following the science Trump, his witch doctor, and Rep. Louie Gohmert — a Texas Republican who has been walking around the Capitol without a mask — has tested positive for the coronavirus (thinks he got coronavirus from wearing a mask!)

"It's like thinking a wearing condom causes pregnancy." -- Joy Behar

Thoughts and Prayers
Mon, 08/03/2020 - 5:24am

Add Michigan Republican Senator Tom Barrett to that list!

Sat, 08/01/2020 - 1:18pm

Good luck with all that we are dealing with. Bussing , feeding, staffing ,subs. spacing, masks, childcare, masks etc. etc. etc. R.L.

Sat, 08/01/2020 - 7:44pm

Imagine the increased costs to do all that? What happened to the Tea Party?????

Sun, 08/02/2020 - 12:18am

The first question I would ask my child's school administration is how many total room air exchanges is the HVAC system capable of doing. Also, what is the MERV rating of the filter? If it is less than 10 -20 total room air exchanges, and the filtration is less than MERV 13, superspreader events are likely. This is because we have pretty clear evidence that over time, with poor ventilation (most schools have 3-5 air exchanges/hour), transmission is likely. Portable HEPA units can help, but so far I've not seen guidance from the state or CDC on what exactly how many units/cubic foot/student are required. In the meantime, if you do send your child to school, give the teacher a box fan, install it in a window so that it blows out, and open a second window or the door that opens to the outside. This will get you through September and some of October. ICUs require 10 total room air volume exchanges/hour and radiology waiting rooms require 20/hour. Since the viral emission from an infected child are comparable to a patient in an ICU, (or likely higher), 10 /hour is a minimum. So far, no government agencies have published guidelines in regards to ventilation for schools.

Geoffrey Owen
Sun, 08/02/2020 - 1:44pm

Our cases in Michigan are increasing at the same rate as early May. Starting schools now can only increase this and put our children at risk, and families. But please send them back. How else will they learn first hand about how adults make life and death decisions? At stores and restaurants I see families placing their unmasked children at the highest risk. Go ahead and start but the best teachers, the once with an ounce of sense, will probably be on leave.

Sun, 08/02/2020 - 10:25pm

I have been reading children cannot get the Corona virus. That is not true. The children are not going out to bars or shopping and eating out. The adults are going out to bars eating out and not social distancing or wearing a mask. If children go back to school around a group of people without social distancing and not required to wear a mask we will have a rapid case of corona virus among these children. We all know children are carriers of germs and viruses. Lets be smart and tell the truth so we can get what we need in our classrooms. The bars are closed and some indoor places are closed so why would the schools open?

Randy Robinson
Tue, 08/04/2020 - 11:01am

Still, many people are freaking out over an illness/ death rates similar to H1N1 Flu with a 99% survival rate. We have never shut the country down and destroyed economy over the Flu have we?

Changing the voting laws by "mass mailing" ballots is just another way to conflate the issue even more. Why are we conflating Absentee ballots with mass mailing ballots? They are not the same thing.

People on all sides of this issue are are either lying or they just don't know whats going on. Even the experts can't agree, moreover some experts like Dr Fouce can't tell the same story from week to week. And who can believe the WHO? That outfit is run by a communist thug, check his background.

And why is Bill Gates the original soft ware King involved. He can't even keep a virus out of his software and wants to fix human viruses! LMAO duh!

What's really strange is I don't know anybody that has caught COVID.

This illness is so scary we are conveniently going to alter voting rules, close Schools, Churches and collapse the economy to avoid spreading the virus, yet rioting in the streets doesn't spread the virus and rioting is OK now. Really?

Frankly I think the Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate have lost their collective minds. Did anybody see how much of our tax dollars were spent on non-COVID issues in the last COVID BILL? Millions of dollars are being wasted while we argue about all the false information. And some politicians/ families are actually on the receiving end of that spectrum. Where's the outrage?

It doesn't matter who's right or wrong what matters is how much damage we are doing to our nation on the whole.

Saundra Peiss
Fri, 08/07/2020 - 10:41am

How can you even think of sending children to school when we cannot control or eliminate this deadly disease?
No one should be put in a position to gamble on their life.

Thu, 08/13/2020 - 1:42am

So many of these comments are just obviously politically driven ....feigned outrage and accusations claiming that others just have total disregard for the life or death of their own children and grandparents in the interest of face to face education. Did all of these people already not care about their own families before the coronavirus outbreak or did they lose their affection for their loved ones suddenly?
We all know that there has been an unbelievable amount of misinformation, reports/guidelines updated as new data is acquired and disagreement within the medical community. In addition to the many blatantly politically motivated Executive Orders regarding this pandemic, there have also been individuals (leaders) from outside the scientific community making claims and decisions for children and families despite their lack of expertise (and based on selective information that supports their agendas rather than the best interest of the hundreds of thousands of children across this country.)
The CDC/Robert Redfield Preparing K-12 School Administrators for a Safe Return to School in Fall 2020 | CDC
The Importance of Reopening America’s Schools this Fall | CDC and Dr. Anthony Fauci both recommend return to in-person classrooms for public schools. That is “the science” currently. Of course, there are exceptions for locations experiencing spikes in COVID-19 infections/illness (not simply positive tests.)
And while some people decry the so-called disregard for the safety and health of at risk individuals by those advocating a return to classrooms, they have no problem going to the grocery store, eating at restaurants or picking up carry-out, attending small gatherings, etc. They also seem to have no regard for the nearly 30% of students who “disappeared” after schools were closed around this country -most of whom reside in socially and economically impoverished communities where in-person learning represents a safety net for a multitude of issues beyond basic education. Per usual, these kids are not the priority… and likely none of the people in favor of keeping schools closed and are busy shaming others know a single person, much less live, in those communities or have those experiences. They are of the opinion parents can all just teach/tutor kids at home, maybe get them private music lessons, and they will catch back up -no problem! The virtue signaling here is pretty bananas.