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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

First Michigan school district to go fully online amid coronavirus

Lansing Public School District will be fully remote learning for the beginning of the school year — the first school district in the state to announce plans to continue homebound learning due to the pandemic.

The 10,000-student urban district is the first to announce it will be fully online, but it likely won’t be the last. While the majority of districts in the state may reopen for all students in September, there are districts considering not reopening their school buildings when the school year begins, according to several school officials who spoke to Bridge Friday.

“The proposed plan starts school with active screen-to-screen live instruction between a teacher and their students,” Lansing Superintendent Sam Sincicropi said in a news release Thursday. “Hopefully we can begin to get our students back into the classroom at their school with their teachers by the end of the first marking period which is around the first week in November.

“Our goal is to safely get kids back into the classroom as soon as possible,” Sincicropi said.

Lansing students won’t have the same homebound learning experience they had in the spring. Instead of students learning on their own, there will be an emphasis on interaction between teachers and students online.

Michigan’s public and private K-12 schools have been shuttered since mid-March in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus, which has sickened more than 71,000 Michigan residents and killed more than 6,100.

Among school districts that have announced fall reopening plans so far, the majority expect to bring students back into classrooms five days a week, with online learning options for families who don’t feel comfortable returning to school before a COVID-19 vaccine is developed.

Infection rates have dropped dramatically since Michigan’s peak of the pandemic in April, but confirmed cases are now rising again. On Thursday, the seven-day average of new daily cases reached 594 — the highest the average has been in eight weeks.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has warned that if coronavirus cases continue to rise, it could endanger the in-class reopening of schools.

Schools in Houston, currently a pandemic hotspot, announced they will be online-only for the first six weeks of the school year. California’s two largest school districts, in Los Angeles and San Diego, also will be online in the fall.

The two Michigan districts that have so far announced large online components for the fall are economically different. Lansing is a low-income district, with 81 percent of students considered economically disadvantaged, and 76 percent non-white.

West Bloomfield School District, while also diverse, is an affluent suburban district in Oakland County. It announced this week that its high school students will be online only this fall, with most K-8 students sitting in classrooms two days a week and getting remote learning on other days.

Jason Mellema, superintendent of Ingham Intermediate School District, which includes Lansing, said some other schools in Ingham County are considering reopening options that include some remote learning. Those plans are still being tweaked and could change, Mellema said.

Robert McCann, executive director of the Tri-County Alliance for Public Education, a statewide education advocacy organization, said “it would not shock me to see more” Michigan schools announce online-only reopenings. McCann pointed to the need for families to know whether children will be home this fall, and the continued unpredictability of the pandemic as reasons districts could decide to play it safe and continue homebound learning.

Added Mellema, “parents can’t flip a switch Aug. 15” and organize child care if schools are closed. If schools aren’t reopening, parents need to know soon.

Politics complicate the decisions, with President Trump and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos threatening to cut off federal funding to schools that don’t fully reopen their classrooms in the fall. Meanwhile in Detroit, a group of parents has taken Detroit Public Schools Community District to court, asking a judge to shut down in-person summer school because it is unsafe for students.

Michigan superintendents who’ve spoken to Bridge say they are receiving calls from some parents who say they aren’t sending their children to school during the pandemic, and other parents who say they refuse to have their children wear face masks in classrooms.

“You just see how polarized it is,” Mellema said. “We’re just trying to do what we have to to follow (state) requirements.”

A recent poll of K-12 parents in Michigan found the majority want schools to reopen, but want stringent safety measures, including frequent health screenings and less-crowded buses.

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