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Michigan calls on schools to have masks but no social distancing in class

Michigan schools can reopen if the coronavirus pandemic doesn’t get worse than it is now, according to a 63-page plan released by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer Tuesday. 

But students and parents should expect an educational experience radically different from pre-pandemic times — one that includes plenty of face masks but, perhaps surprisingly, no mandatory social distancing in classrooms or on buses, leaving that decision largely to local schools. 

The plan, titled MI Safe Schools, provides Michigan’s more than 800 school districts and charter schools a guideline of school safety requirements and recommendations that differ by pandemic phase classification.

There are stringent safety requirements for schools if the state continues to be in the current pandemic safety phase (currently phase 4 in the Lower Peninsula) that would make the coming school year look and feel like no other.

Just how different? Picture kindergartners with face masks and closed cafeterias; football games where fist bumps or shaking hands are banned after touchdowns and bleachers with no more than 100 fans.

If conditions improve, however, as Whitmer indicated she hoped they would by fall, some of those safety requirements become recommendations.

You can read the report here.

“We cannot predict precisely how this virus will change in the weeks or months ahead,” Whitmer said at a press conference Tuesday. “But we are going to do everything we can to increase the likelihood that we start and stay in a phase of this pandemic that allows for in-person instruction. 

“These requirements and recommendations will not always be easy to implement. But they're absolutely necessary. These measures are designed to increase the likelihood of keeping Michigan schools open.”

It’s possible that some protocols may be required in areas facing higher risks of the spread of coronavirus, and the same protocols will be merely recommendations in other parts of the state. For example, the harder-hit Lower Peninsula is considered to be in phase 4 of pandemic response now, while the Upper Peninsula is classified as the less-restrictive phase 5.

Under current conditions in the Lower Peninsula, school safety protocols would include:

  • Face coverings for staff at all times other than during meals.
  • A recommendation that teachers in kindergarten through fifth grade wear clear face shields.
  • All students wear face masks on buses and in school common areas such as hallways and libraries.
  • Facial coverings for students in grades 6-12 in classrooms.
  • Facial coverings for students in grades K-5 if they come in contact with students outside of their classroom during the day.
  • No indoor assemblies that bring together more than a single classroom of students.
  • Weight rooms are closed.
  • No handshakes or fist bumps in athletic events
  • Indoor spectator events are suspended and outdoor events are limited to 100 fans.

Under Whitmer’s plan, safety protocols become less stringent as the state raises its pandemic phase classification. For example, face coverings are “strongly recommended,” but not required, in phase 5.

“We all want our kids to return to school safely in the fall,” Whitmer said at the press event. “My daughter is going to start her senior year of high school this year. And I know firsthand that the last thing any parent wants is to cancel another round of graduations and milestones next spring.”

Whitmer ordered the closure of Michigan’s public and private K-12 school buildings in mid-March to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, which through Monday had sickened more than 63,000 Michigan residents and killed almost 6,000.

Schools switched to remote learning for the state’s 1.5 million K-12 students for the remainder of the school year, mostly through online learning and printed packets delivered to homebound students.

In planning for the fall, school districts have struggled to balance the safety of students and staff with the desire to return to classroom education after what will be a six-month hiatus.

Whitmer created a school reopening advisory panel last month, which made recommendations the governor relied on in Tuesday’s report.

State Superintendent Michael Rice praised the plan. 

“This is a thoughtful set of parameters under which we can return safely and realistically to school in the fall,” Rice said in a statement. “If we follow our health protocols, both inside school and out, we have the opportunity to stay in school longer next school year than if we assume that the pandemic has run its course. It hasn’t.”

One safety protocol some superintendents were surprised to see missing: a requirement for social distancing. Students are not required to sit six feet apart from each other in classrooms or on school buses, even though social distancing is required in restaurants and bars.

Many school leaders were developing contingency plans that included an option of bringing just half of students to school buildings at any one time, to allow for social distancing in classrooms.

The absence of a social-distancing requirement will allow schools the option of returning all students to school every day, said Mark Greathead, superintendent of Woodhaven-Brownstown Public Schools in Wayne County, whose district had anticipated the possible need for “rotating schedules.”

Allowing all students to return to school full-time also gives parents of many students the ability to return to jobs. In a recent poll of Michigan parents, 20 percent said that if their children do not return to school in the fall, it would have a “significant impact” on their ability to pay their bills.

Some districts, including West Bloomfield and Detroit, have already announced plans that are a mix of homebound and classroom learning. But for other districts, news that they can return all students to classrooms and fill their school bus seats as they normally do comes as a relief. 

“I still believe we’ll have to provide flexible learning opportunities for some families,” Greathead said, but his district will likely now try to return to an all-student, in-person schedule.

Erik Edoff, superintendent of L’Anse Creuse Public Schools in Macomb County, said districts do not have the time for the logistics involved in creating a hybrid online/in person school model, nor do most schools have the space to have all students back in class and have them sit six feet apart.

“In current school structures, that was an impossibility,” Edoff said. “I think the (advisory panel) understood that.”

While classrooms could be packed, most students would, under the state’s phase 4 pandemic level currently in force in the Lower Peninsula, be required to wear face masks.

Recommending but not requiring social distancing “allows us to have a more normal school,” Edoff said, “but we will still create social distancing where we can.”

Both Edoff and Greathead said the safety protocols required and recommended in Whitmer’s plan are important, but they are also expensive.

Edoff estimated that costs connected to the pandemic could cost his district between $500 and $600 per student in the coming school year, in expenses such as additional cleaning, testing and personal protective equipment.

School leaders, as well as legislators and the governor, are holding out hope that the federal government will approve an additional pandemic stimulus package that provides money for schools.

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