Michigan schools lean toward returning kids to classrooms amid coronavirus

Many Michigan schools are hoping to be open for all students in September. (Bridge file photo)

It looks like many Michigan children will have the option of attending school five days a week this fall despite continuing fears over coronavirus.

The state’s K-12 school districts and charter schools will be announcing plans in the coming weeks for how they hope to provide education during the ongoing pandemic. Among schools that have announced plans so far, most are offering all students who want to return to school full-time the chance to do that.

The 20 school districts in Kent County, where Grand Rapids is located, all plan to return to full-week, in-person instruction, according to Ron Koehler, assistant superintendent at Kent Intermediate School District. Many of populous Oakland County’s 28 school districts are leaning the same direction, as are the eight rural districts in the West Shore Educational School District in Northwest Michigan.

Those schools will also offer a full online education program for students who aren’t comfortable returning to classrooms.

The trend is likely to bring a sigh of relief to some exhausted parents, many of whom have been struggling with homebound education while trying to maintain jobs since Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered Michigan schools closed in mid-March, and raise health concerns for others who fear crowded classrooms could cause a spike in the potentially deadly virus.

For many Michigan students to have the option to return to full-time face-to-face instruction seemed unlikely until recently, according to school leaders who spoke to Bridge. Many schools were considering models that would bring some students back to classrooms some days, and other students other days, to limit the number of students in buildings at any one time.

“We all started with a hybrid model six weeks ago,” said Wanda Cook-Robinson, superintendent of Oakland Intermediate School District. “Then we moved to full-time” in-person instruction.

That expectation took place even as the number of new coronavirus cases rose over the past month (week over week case counts have risen for four weeks in a row).

The difference: Whitmer released school reopening guidelines that required stringent safety protocols but no social distancing and parent surveys that indicated families want schools to reopen.

“The goal frankly is to have the students in front of teachers,” said Mike Shibler, superintendent of the 8,000-student Rockford Public Schools north of Grand Rapids.

The consensus of Kent County superintendents, Shibler said, is to offer in-class instruction for all students if the state stays in pandemic Phase 4 or higher, which, according to Whitmer’s guidelines, allows schools to reopen. If the pandemic worsens and the state drops below Phase 4, all schools will close again.

In essence, everyone is back to school or no one is, depending on the state of the pandemic.

Shibler said he is adamantly against hybrid schedules in which students are in school some days and studying from home others. “You have some single parent families or families where both parents work, they gotta go to work,” Shibler said. “And it’s too confusing for anyone to come up with a schedule and remember it.”

The longtime superintendent said he’s had some parents call him who say they aren’t sending their children to school because of fear of catching coronavirus from fellow students, and other parents who call saying they aren’t sending their kids to school if they have to wear masks.

“We want a robust online program for parents who are afraid or students who are medically fragile,” Sibler said. “Quite frankly, I believe by October, most of those families will have their kids back in school. Till then, they can start their kids online.”

Oakland ISD’s Cook-Robinson said districts in her Metro Detroit county are making their own decisions about reopening plans. West Bloomfield Public Schools is going with a hybrid schedule in which students attend schools some days and participate in online lessons on others.

“Parents also have the option of selecting to enroll their children in our 100-percent virtual option,” said West Bloomfield Superintendent Gerald Hill. “The safety of our students and staff is our utmost priority.”

Nearby, Rochester Public Schools plans to bring all students back to classrooms who want face-to-face instruction, with an online-only option for those who prefer.

Cook-Robinson said most schools in Oakland are leaning toward full-week, face-to-face instruction.

“The majority of districts have surveyed their families and they want to come back,” Cook-Robinson said. The state’s reopening roadmap that doesn’t require social distancing – an impossibility for most schools because of the size of classrooms – made returning to school with all children possible. And a report by the American Association of Pediatrics that said the benefits of returning children to school outweighed the virus risk made schools comfortable making the decision to bring students back, Cook-Robinson said.

Hart Public Schools Superintendent Mark Platt announced early that his rural West Michigan district would bring all students back to classrooms this fall. Other districts are following suit after Whitmer’s plan – surprisingly to Platt – didn’t require social distancing.  “That social distancing part is the number one reason you’re not seeing that alternating schedule in schools,” Platt said.

In Ingham County, most school districts are leaning toward full return of students to school buildings, said Jason Mellema, superintendent of Ingham Intermediate School District.

“Ultimately, we’re optimistic that face-to-face (instruction) is going to work, but we realize we’re one outbreak away from being back in Phase 3,” which would require schools return to homebound learning, Mellema said.

Detroit Public Schools Community District, the largest school district in the state, currently has fall options that bring all students back and students alternating weeks of in-school and homebound learning. Many other Wayne County school districts haven’t made decisions about the fall yet, said Randy Liepa, superintendent of Wayne Regional Education Service Agency. “Our schools aren’t there yet, but I think you’ll see a lot of announcements in the next few weeks,” Liepa said.

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Not happening
Wed, 07/15/2020 - 8:21am

"The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry." No matter how carefully this is planned, it will be shutdown by the virus. The virus will not be put in jail for violation of probation. Listen to Fauci.

Democracy Now
Wed, 07/15/2020 - 8:48am

"Those schools will also offer a full online education program for students who aren’t comfortable returning to classrooms." Let's face it all this talk about the working couples and single moms is just pretend compassion/cover for Republicans that put the economy before our health. Middle class families can work online and their children can learn online very well. These plans to reopen are for the disposable people who must be at work and at school. It's interesting to see the recent outbreaks and the minorities that are suffering disproportionately. Seems like a form of voter suppression. Trump won in Michigan by 10K votes? We lost over 6K adults to coronavirus in Michigan, predominantly in Detroit? You do the math. This virus is obviously decimating Democrats and it's no wonder Republicans don't care.

Wed, 07/15/2020 - 8:52am

It remains to be seen what children will want, especially high school age. They tend to follow their peers, even if it is off a cliff. Adults should take more precautions. No masks, no social distancing? What can go wrong with that? What happens after school when these kids think all is "normal" and they are hanging out together?

Wed, 07/15/2020 - 8:54am

They should start offering online classes instead. The teachers can attend to rest of the students that do not have internet access. Thus creating safe barriers for everyone involved.

Broadband for all MI
Thu, 07/16/2020 - 9:28am

I heard all the students will have access to at least six months of free high-speed internet access and laptops. That's the way to go, should be the same statewide. Let's go GOP legislature, move it! Imagine what a great business climate we would have with cheap or free state-wide broadband? Stop funding pet projects, picking winners and losers. Talking to you, Michigan Economic Development Corporation!

Fri, 07/17/2020 - 8:51am

It would be great if broadband was actually AVAILABLE statewide. In many rural areas, there is no physical infrastructure to provide broadband access, or even reliable cell phone voice signal, to every home. The Federal E-Rate program and Michigan's MERIT network have managed to get most school buildings and public libraries an on-line connection, but the FCC has killed off all the municipal ISP plans they could
in favor of higher profits for the cable and telecom companies. We need the broadband equivalent to the Rural Electrification Program, and to unleash the rural electric co-ops to provide broadband everywhere in Michigan!

Tue, 08/04/2020 - 11:34am

Just look at who Trump put in charge of the FCC. Time to vote Trump out of office. Impeachment failed because of the GOP sycophants.

Wed, 07/15/2020 - 9:48am

Politicians meeting by ZOOM to discuss if children and teachers should go back to school.
That is all you need to know.

Thu, 07/16/2020 - 9:30am

Just one more note. Get rid of those hypocrites! Vote them out in November!

Wed, 07/15/2020 - 10:25am

It will be interesting to see how much time teachers spend telling students to "Put your mask on", how teaching with a mask on will sound to the students and how much "hazardous duty" pay will be for the adults in the building, since they are more likely to catch Covid from one of their students.

Wed, 07/15/2020 - 3:51pm

Those are good questions.

I think face shields would be better than masks.

I expect teachers to face layoffs and pay cuts due to the lost tax revenue and additional COVID-19 expenses. I do not see hazard pay as an option.

I am concerned about substitute teacher demand and availability.

I am confused as to how 21 year olds at Harper's Bar created a massive spread of the virus while at the same time we are told not to worry about the thousands of 18 year old seniors congregating every day.

Thu, 07/16/2020 - 9:36am

David, yeah, telling students not to touch their cellphones, share pens, pencils, candy, etc. Telling those teenagers not to hold hands, kiss, whatever. Just put them together and tell them to stay apart. What can go wrong with that? It's an interesting healthcare experiment, just wish it wasn't affecting my children and their friends as guinea pigs. Even if we keep them home, what are the chances they will not try to get together outside of school when they think getting together for school is fine? It's a nightmare for parents, teachers, and anyone with a heart and a brain.

frank robinson
Wed, 07/15/2020 - 12:33pm

Per the bridge article from last week there are only 59 deaths for those below age 40 in michigan. Couldn't find specifics for those under 18 but we can be sure its less than half of that. So with 1.5 million michigan school aged children in michigan their odds of a terrible result are less than one ten thousandths of one percent. Pretty sure their odds are worse getting on the bus or walking to school. The real issue is can they pass it to mom and dad or the teachers. Seems to be some thought they are luckily bad at getting it and spreading it but until we know more guess its time to put the over 40 teachers online only and fill the classrooms with the younger teachers.

Wed, 07/15/2020 - 2:26pm

Younger teachers also have families and children of their own they could potentially be infecting. There are not many statistics on children because children have been the most protected. Schools and most daycare were closed down, limited the exposure to our youngest population. Put kids back in school with no safety precautions and there will be cases that spread, and lives will be lost. I’m not willing to use my child as a guinea pig to see what happens when a child gets COVID.

Wed, 07/15/2020 - 3:42pm

"Put kids back in school with no safety precautions and there will be cases that spread, and lives will be lost. I’m not willing to use my child as a guinea pig to see what happens when a child gets COVID."

Who or whom is suggesting we send kids back to schools with NO safety precautions? Seriously, where or how did you arrive at that point when the article actually states "Whitmer released school reopening guidelines that required stringent safety protocols ..."?

Frank robinson
Wed, 07/15/2020 - 4:25pm

Did you not see the odds. Under 40 death in Michigan is .00002 percent. Wish the world had no risk in it but no such luck. Do you keep the kids home if there's a thunderstorm?

Get real
Thu, 07/16/2020 - 10:00am

"Do you keep the kids home if there's a thunderstorm?" Depends on the storm.

Be honest
Thu, 07/16/2020 - 10:11am

Carl, Bridge reported some plans that seem very troubling.
Not sure if anyone knows what plans will be in place in the fall or if schools will even open, but I doubt will accept these largely political decisions. Moreover Whitmer, as a caring parent, will likely order schools shut because of health care concerns and the safety all Michiganders. The Michigan GOP will kick and scream (for appearances), but secretly rejoice that Whitmer made the courageous decisions throughout this pandemic. The GOP lacks credible leadership skills and seems to only care about the economy.

Fri, 07/24/2020 - 8:17pm

The district I teach in is not doing ANY social distancing and they are having 34 students in high school classes. They are also allowing kids to eat lunch in the cafeteria. Cleaning, if done at all, is happening during passing time by the teachers. They are acting like nothing has changed. And they are giving the kids a squirt of hand sanitizer before they get on the bus. That is the preparedness they are offering. And you think we are prepared for this? As a teacher and a parent with Bronchitis, I am concerned that I will be bringing COVID home to my family after I have done everything in my personal life to reduce the chances of getting COVID. Now I am trusting a district to have my best interest in mind as they make decisions. How can you call 35 students in a class any form of social distancing? I am angry, scared and sad that Kroger protects their workers more than we are protecting thousands of high school students.

James Roberts
Thu, 07/16/2020 - 9:42am

Should be better than the alternative, to lose a year and half of school and be behind the private school kids forever. Of course there may never be a vaccine, so let's close schools altogether.

James Roberts
Thu, 07/16/2020 - 11:04am

My private school kids still had classes on line and it counted. Yep they learned and will again in the fall. Recall the governor said we can't count the spring school for public's cause ten percent can't get proper resources. Ie everybody passes. I wouldn't expect it to any different in the fall.

Thu, 07/16/2020 - 12:56pm

Not sure what you mean. Our children in public school also had online classes that counted, scored well on AP exams too. They learned and will again in the fall, just not in-person. The school didn't just let everyone pass (anymore than they did at your private school). One girl in Birmingham is even in jail for not waking up in time. How's that for accountability? I bet the children of big donors at your private school are never held accountable for anything. It's a myth that private schools are better than public schools or that children learn more. Sometimes they are confused about science because of how some religious schools teach creationism and that the earth is flat. Anyway, the issue is about in-person classes.

Thu, 07/16/2020 - 9:56am

"Pretty sure their odds are worse getting on the bus or walking to school."? Respectfully disagree. That's a red herring because your proposal includes combining the risks and exponentially increasing the deaths, riding buses with child vectors and spending hours in school with each other. Also we don't even know how many teachers or funding will be available. Think about increased sanitation costs. We can't run schools with half the students attending in the buildings. It's just not financially feasible.

We don't want to be like California, Texas, Arizona, Florida, etc. especially when the new flu season starts. We need healthcare workers to focus on cancer and other necessary treatments. We cannot overwhelm the system with COVID cases that can be prevented by keeping the children at home. Some schools might be open for students whose parents must work outside the house, but extreme precautions should be taken. Those schools should be the exception rather than the rule. Lastly, you'd feel very differently, I hope, if those isolated casualties were your children or grandchildren.

Ask Yourself This
Wed, 07/15/2020 - 9:21pm

If masks keep you safe from Covid, then why WOULDN'T we be able to go back to school?

Thu, 07/16/2020 - 10:23am

First of all, masks will not be required for all student. It's based on age. Second, we are talking about long periods of time in confinement together with questionable social distancing of children who are still immature. Your question shows how even adults at times can lack appropriate depth of understanding. How can we expect more from children?

Matt G
Fri, 07/17/2020 - 10:35am

Masks "help stop the spread" when used for brief necessary trips into stores and when you HAVE TO be in crowded places. Otherwise, "social distancing" means stay the hell away from everyone whenever possible.

Nobody ever said wearing a mask for an entire school day would keep kids or staff safe. But go ahead and keep making this strawman argument. It's sure convincing for the people who already agree with you and can't be bothered to understand nuance.

People, Get Real!
Thu, 07/16/2020 - 10:46am

Has anyone here ever seen what happens when kids at school get into a fight? How they act in cafeterias, between classes, on buses, or at sporting/social events? Have you heard about bullying, social media, FOMO? Were any of you ever children? Have any of you worked in a school? Do any of you have children? Are your children perfect obedient angels ALL the time?

frank robinson
Fri, 07/17/2020 - 9:45am

Okay people. Lets assume the low rates for kids are because they have been sheltered. Assess the risk for only those remaining 3.5 million michiganians from age 18 to 40, yes the ones who seemingly don't care about all this, therefore take fewer precautions, going to parties, are the ones working the essential jobs, ie grocery stores, and still have had only 59 deaths according to Bridge. A death risk of .0000168%. Hysteria much?

Matt G
Fri, 07/17/2020 - 10:39am

Bridge, this article shamefully ignores the fact that the APA clarified its statement about returning to school, and they've said


Here's a quote from the APA:
“Science should drive decision-making on safely reopening schools. Public health agencies must make recommendations based on evidence, not politics,” the statement notes. “We should leave it to health experts to tell us when the time is best to open up school buildings, and listen to educators and administrators to shape how we do it.”

The clarification the APA made should be addressed when the people you're quoting are using it as a justification for why schools are leaning towards reopening. That's just good journalism, no?

Fri, 07/17/2020 - 10:40am

“Nearly one-third of children tested for COVID in Florida are positive. Palm Beach County’s health director warns of risk of long-term damage”. What’s the point of hurrying kids back to classroom & whole family be dead later? My kid’s life goes first not education when the pandemic is this bad.

Louise Blasius
Tue, 07/21/2020 - 12:28pm

Are some schools screening all students for temps and how?
How do you know when your region switches into a different phase?