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Data show most Michigan schools safe to reopen, but plans all over map

empty classroom
The Detroit Public Schools Community District has a looming deadline for parents to sign consent forms allowing their children to be tested for COVID.

School districts in most Michigan counties can safely reopen for in-class instruction given their current rates of coronavirus cases and testing, according to two widely accepted public health standards.

All but four counties in Michigan meet the standard that is guiding school reopenings in New York, one of the states hardest hit by the coronavirus. And 66 of Michigan’s 83 counties meet a second, more stringent standard suggested by researchers at Harvard University.

But without specific metrics or guidelines from the state, district-by-district decisions appear inconsistent with the hard numbers available, with some schools in relatively safer counties going online and some in places with elevated risks choosing at least partial face-to-face instruction.


  • In Kent County, where the level of cases and positive tests are well within established safety standards, seven of 20 school districts are nevertheless opting to start online.
  • In Macomb County, where the positive test rate (over 7 percent) exceeds both safety standards, 13 of 17 districts for which Bridge could find reopening plans are offering at least some face-to-face instruction.
  • In Oakland County, which has fewer cases but a positive test rate just above the more lenient of the two standards, 14 districts are online-only to start with six offering some face-to-face instruction.

In many counties, neighboring school districts have different reopening plans, causing confusion among parents and frustration among school leaders who have been thrust into roles as medical experts.


“If we could get more guidance from the state and the county health departments, that would really help make districts within counties make decisions that look like each other,” said Steve Matthews, superintendent of the Novi Community School District in Oakland County.

Michigan’s Legislature and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last week agreed to a compromise that largely allows Michigan’s 587 traditional school districts and roughly 370 charter schools to make their own decisions. 

Groups such as the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators unsuccessfully lobbied for specific benchmarks from the state to guide decisions about reopenings.

“[Schools] are very good educators. They are not medical experts,” said Peter Spadafore, a deputy executive director of the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators. “We need more guidance and coordination at the state level for these indicators.”

By commonly accepted national and international measures, schools in much of the state could reopen, even as Michigan has nearly 100,000 confirmed and probable coronavirus cases and more than 6,000 deaths.

New York, Pennsylvania and other states are relying on guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, which allows schools to reopen once there is widespread testing — Michigan has hit that benchmark of more than 150 tests per day per 100,000 people — and a positive test rate below 5 percent. Another factor in some states: staying below 25 new cases per 100,000 people per day.

By that standard, 79 of the state’s 83 counties are now below the 5 percent  threshold. Only Macomb and Wayne counties in metro Detroit, Ontonagon County in the Upper Peninsula and Saginaw County have positive rates over 5 percent. A higher positive test rate suggests that testing may be limited and a community may be missing those with mild illnesses or who are asymptomatic.   

No Michigan county has a daily case rate exceeding 25 per 100,000, with only Menominee County in the U.P. even coming close with 23.6 cases per 100,000 as of Monday.

A more stringent school reopening standard, crafted by the Harvard Global Health Initiative, calls for schools to open only when the test positive rate falls below 3 percent. 

Even under this stricter standard, school districts could resume face-to-face instruction — still with social distancing and other controls like masks and improved hygiene — in 67 Michigan counties, where 57 percent of the state’s population resides.

There is no nationwide standard for school reopenings. And many states, including Michigan, have avoided citing hard numbers. 

Still other states list school opening benchmarks, but most are recommendations not mandates.  

In Massachusetts, for instance, case count rates drive the decision, with schools in areas with fewer than eight new cases per day per 100,000 people encouraged to offer in-person instruction. In Arizona, state officials suggest schools can open if case positive rates are 7 percent or lower and where new cases are below 10 people per 100,000. 

Not always black and white

To be sure, local school leaders are making calls based on more than the number of new coronavirus cases or positive test rates. They have to decide if, in their specific communities, they can conduct face-to-face classes and keep students, teachers and staff safe. And if choosing online-only instruction, they must weigh the availability of Internet connections, computers or the ability of parents to assist young learners.

Most school districts have surveyed parents for their views and made multiple reopening plans as the pandemic has peaked, fallen and threatened to rise again.

But school leaders cannot look to Lansing for much guidance: As long as Michigan remains in the pandemic Phase 4 or higher, local school districts can make their own decisions about in-person instruction, according to plans adopted by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Legislature. 

While the governor’s school reopening plan, released June 30, lays out stringent safety protocols, it does not offer specific, data-driven metrics for schools to follow in making decisions about whether classrooms are safe for students and staff. 

That has forced local officials to rely on vague guidelines, their own research, or the passions of local parents and teachers.

The result is a hodgepodge of plans in the state’s more than 900 traditional school districts and charter schools, sometimes with little obvious relation to local or regional pandemic infection rates.

One example is Livingston County, which shares low rates of infection and positive tests with neighboring jurisdictions. Its neighbors — Ingham to the west, Oakland to the east, Washtenaw to the south — all have a majority of school districts starting the year with online-only learning. Livingston’s five school districts, by contrast, all plan at least some face-to-face instruction.

In Livingston’s Howell Public Schools, classes reopened Wednesday with a half-day of school for students. About 80 percent of Howell families chose face-to-face instruction, with the rest choosing to remain home with online learning offered by the district as an option.

Tom Gould is the spokesperson for Howell schools, his wife is a teacher in Ann Arbor Public Schools, and his son attends school in Chelsea. All three districts, within 30 miles of each other, have different reopening plans.

“Even in our own house, keeping track of these things is crazy,” Gould said.

School officials say they worry that reopening classrooms, then shuttering them or having large numbers of students quarantined because a classmate contracts coronavirus, could be more disruptive to learning than the more cautious alternative of starting the school year online, no matter what the current pandemic data indicate.

The governor’s staff defended Whitmer’s approach, saying it is based on data — standards Republican leaders and others have long questioned for their lack of specificity and clarity.

“Gov. Whitmer has been very clear — she will continue to make choices using science and data that protect Michigan children and educators during these unprecedented times,” Chelsea Lewis, a spokesperson for the governor, said in an email Tuesday to Bridge.

Each district, Lewis said, must come up with a plan that “aligns” with the governor’s “safe start plan” and “safe schools roadmap.” But while the CDC, WHO and Harvard researchers offer specific and publicly released benchmarks, Michigan has not set hard-and-fast thresholds. 

Rep. Pamela Hornberger, R-Chesterfield Township in hard-hit Macomb County, has been a proponent of reopening classrooms. But she said she has sympathy for school officials who have to balance health and education priorities.

“I’m hoping locals can make the best decisions, but we’re going to run into all kinds of problems,” Hornberger told Bridge. “I would be the last person to hold anyone at fault for making a decision that doesn’t work out properly. It’s going to be trial and error.”

With vague guidance from the state, schools have turned to local county health departments for recommendations. School officials say those departments have been hesitant to provide specific metrics for opening or closing schools, focusing instead on how to safely operate schools once they do open.

“We're providing guidance more than anything else,” said Steve Kelso, spokesperson for the Kent County Health Department. “Certainly we understand the frustration. There's not one amongst us who has any real experience at guiding us through a pandemic.”

What’s safe? What isn’t?

The debate on reopening schools has roiled parents and educators across the state, leading to marathon school board meetings and protests from Grosse Pointe (in favor of in-person class) to Detroit (against face-to-face) to Lansing (educators against face-to-face).

In South Lyon in Oakland County, hundreds of parents lobbied the school board to offer some in-person classes and a survey showed just over half wanted at least a hybrid plan that blended online and in-person instruction.

But the school board, following a meeting that stretched to after 2 a.m. last week, voted 6-1 to go all online to start the year.

“I get it. It is difficult,” said Randy Clark, the lone vote against going online only. He said he’s had dozens of calls and emails of support, many from parents who fear a “wasted year” if all learning is online. Some, he said, are sending their children to nearby districts that offer in-person instruction. 

“I’m frustrated. I thought the parents made it clear,” he said.

Said Bobby Coppola, a South Lyon parent, in an email to Clark that Coppola shared with Bridge: “Thank You for being an advocate for those of us that feel the kids NEED to be IN SCHOOL, socializing and getting instruction from their teachers — not in front of a computer for 8 hours a day.”

Coppola said he has chosen to spend over $8,000 on private school for his children because of South Lyon’s decision.

School outbreaks in other states

Michigan’s public and private K-12 school buildings were ordered closed by Whitmer in mid-March in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus that, to date, has sickened more than 93,000 Michigan residents and killed more than 6,300. The school year continued with homebound learning through June.

The number of infections among young school-age children in Michigan has been rising faster than older age groups, but it’s still a small fraction of all cases: Children under 10 make up nearly 12 percent of the state’s population but just 2 percent of coronavirus infections.

Still, schools can feel like they are in a no-win situation when asked to choose between their expertise in conducting in-person classes, and assuring the safety of students and staff by continuing homebound learning.

Sobering reports from other states reveal the stakes. For example:

In Gwinnett County in Georgia, near Atlanta, 260 school employees tested positive or were in quarantine because of possible exposure in the first week of classes.

In Corinth, Mississippi, 116 students were sent home because they tested positive for COVID-19 or told to quarantine because of possible exposure, in the first two weeks of school.

Fourth-graders at a Wake Forest, N.C., elementary school were sent home for 14 days after a student tested positive.

A central Indiana high school closed two days after opening because at least one staff member tested positive for the virus.

“We’ve gotten to monitor what’s happening in other states,” Randy Liepa, superintendent of Wayne Intermediate School District, told Bridge in early August. “My read is: It’s making us pretty uncomfortable.”

But Michigan’s experience with the coronavirus is far different than many  states, including southern states such as Georgia, Mississippi and North Carolina. According to a similar analysis of school safety standards in the New York Times, Michigan was one of the very few states with coronavirus safety metrics that suggested face-to-face education was relatively safe.

No-win situation

But finding the perfect solution is daunting. Take the Gogebic-Ontonagon Intermediate School District in the western Upper Peninsula. Ontonagon County is one of the few in the state to have a positive test rate over 5 percent. It has also had an outbreak that pushed its cases-per-100,000 to 32, well above the 25 cases a day suggested by Harvard as the standard to stay below and safely open.

Yet all school districts in the region offer some form of face-to-face teaching this fall. One education official said the districts are not acting in defiance of the science. Rather, it’s an acknowledgement that the region’s parents and students have other, competing needs.

“We have an acute shortage of child care here so families don’t have a lot of options unless they have a relative nearby,” said Alan Tulppo, superintendent of the intermediate school district.

About 30 percent of students in Ontonagon and Gogebic are opting to start the year online, an option offered by all districts. Stay-home learning might be even more popular if not for Internet limitations across much of the U.P., Tulppo said. 

“The challenge for us in this part of the state is we don’t have great access to reliable and affordable high-speed Internet, Tulppo said.

Bottom line: “Despite the fact we’re seeing an increase [in cases], parents feel schools are doing everything they can to provide a safe environment,” Tulppo said.

The value of classrooms

Closing schools this past spring may have played a role in bringing down coronavirus cases, new research shows, though other factors were at play as well, including stay-at-home orders and improved hygiene that included frequent hand-washing and use of disinfectant.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, a group of three nonprofit policy and research institutions, has advocated that educators lean more toward reopening schools, especially for grades K-5 because of the negative impact remote learning can have on young learners.

Not offering face-to-face instruction has consequences “because schools are not just where our children learn, they are also where children access services like meals, medical and behavioral support and a lot more,” said Cailin Rivers, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University and a member of the committee that issued the report.

“So foregoing that opportunity has serious drawbacks,” she said.

Rivers, in a videoconference highlighting the report, acknowledged the dangers of the virus as well, but said schools must strike a balance.

A recent Bridge Michigan poll showed just over half of parents (51 percent) surveyed statewide don’t feel their local schools can safely offer face-to-face learning, while 36 percent said they believed schools could reopen safely and 13 percent didn’t answer or were unsure.

That same poll also suggested political ideology may play a role in parents’ attitudes. Roughly 69 percent of people surveyed who had a favorable opinion of President Trump felt schools were safe, while 75 percent of those who had an unfavorable view of the president felt they were not safe.

The Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public-policy organization, found that, on average, districts planning to reopen this fall are in counties in which 55 percent voted for Trump in 2016, compared to 35 percent who supported him in districts announcing plans to start the year online.

That would likely not surprise Clark, the school board member in South Lyon. “You wonder,” he said, “if some of this is being driven by the politics and not the science.” 

Unclear rationale

Over half of school districts in Washtenaw and Ingham counties plan to start the school year online-only, despite infection rates that fall far below the levels the WHO and Harvard suggest are safe for schools to reopen. Schools in both counties point to a factor not present in many other places: incoming college students.

“Other counties don’t have to worry about a major institution bringing in 25,000 people from all over the place,” said Jason Mellema, superintendent of Ingham Intermediate School District. Ingham is home to Michigan State University. Already this summer, the community around the East Lansing campus suffered a major outbreak from partiers crowding into Harper’s Restaurant and Brewpub.

Mellema made the comment to Bridge Monday, a day before MSU announced that undergrad classes will be moved online and dorms would be closed to all but a few students. The decision followed COVID outbreaks suffered recently at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. 

Still, even with the stay-home order, thousands of MSU students with leases for off-campus housing are expected to return to East Lansing in a few weeks.

“That’s a wild card that makes planning [for K-12 reopening] challenging,” Mellema said.

Washtenaw County has six higher education institutions, the largest of which are the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, both of which are, for now, welcoming back students for the fall.

“It will be a huge influx” of students,” said Naomi Norman, interim superintendent of Washtenaw Intermediate School District. “We don’t know what the impact will be, but we know it will impact us in early September.”

Novi Community School District in Oakland plans to start the school year with a mix of in-person instruction and remote learning, while some neighboring schools, such as Plymouth-Canton, Northville and Walled Lake, will start online-only.

Matthews, the Novi superintendent, said leaving such decisions to districts allows them to decide what’s best based on local circumstances. 

“The weakness of it is, other districts are making other choices,” he said. 

“And oftentimes the rationale for why those decisions are being made is not as clear as it should be.”

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