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Michigan schools lean toward returning kids to classrooms amid coronavirus

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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