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Whitmer: Michigan students can return to class if coronavirus stays steady

Michigan’s public and private K-12 schools will open in the fall for in-person learning if the status of the coronavirus pandemic remains the same as it is now or improves, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced Wednesday.

But no one should expect classrooms to look normal in September, and there likely will be notable differences – from remote learning to the number of students in classes and on buses – among various school districts.

Whitmer will release an executive order regarding minimum safety standards for schools June 30, along with recommendations for the state’s more than 800 local school districts.

“I am optimistic that we will return to in-person learning in the fall,” Whitmer said in a news release. “Schools must make sure to enact strict safety measures to continue protecting educators, students, and their families.”

The state’s 1.5 million K-12 students have been shut out of school buildings since mid-March in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19, which through Tuesday, is confirmed to have sickened more than 60,000 Michigan residents and killed about 5,800.

School leaders have been making contingencies for the 2020-21 school year, and a few have announced detailed plans. Most schools are waiting for state recommendations on how to safely reopen.

“The most important thing we can do when developing a return to school plan is closely examine the data and remain vigilant in our steps to fight this virus,” Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, Chief Deputy for Health and Chief Medical Executive Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said in a news release. 

“This is a big step, and we will remain flexible to protect everyone who steps foot in a Michigan school.” 

Whitmer created a 25-person advisory council to make recommendations on reopening schools safely. The council is developing minimum requirements for all schools, as well as recommendations that individual districts can consider if they wish to go beyond the minimum safety standards.

“Our number one goal on this advisory council is the health and safety of our students and educators,” said Tonya Allen, president of the Skillman Foundation and chair of the Return to Learn Advisory Council, in a news release. 

“We will remain vigilant and flexible and closely examine the data as we continue to make recommendations to the governor. This is a crisis unlike any we’ve seen before, and we are committed (to) working closely together to ensure we get this right.”

At a Wednesday news conference, Allen said guidelines will ensure safety and should give parents confidence, but acknowledged "We will all be navigating a new normal together, so we may need to be nimble and agile, because something may change, especially as we're still battling the coronavirus pandemic."

Kevin Polston, superintendent of Godfrey-Lee Public Schools near Grand Rapids and a member of the advisory council, said allowing in-person instruction in phase four with safety rules is "common sense."

"It's imperative to act in a manner that is rooted in safety to avoid a potentially devastating impact a false start could have on our education and economic systems,” Polston said.

The reopening of schools is based on a premise that the COVID-19 pandemic stays at its current status or improves. The number of infections and deaths have decreased significantly in the past month. If infections spike, Whitmer could pull the state back from phase 4, and reconsider whether it is safe for students to congregate in school buildings.

Some school leaders aren’t waiting for the state’s recommendations on how to safely reopen schools.

In West Bloomfield, a suburb near Detroit, K-12 students will attend classrooms two days a week, and have online instruction three days. In Detroit, elementary and middle school students will come to brick-and-mortar classrooms daily, but high schoolers won’t.

And in Hart in rural West Michigan, everyone will be in classrooms every school day.

Hart Superintendent Mark Platt told Bridge his district will provide plexiglass shields for secretarial desks, eliminate water fountains and boost cleaning procedures, but that it’s important for the community for children to be in school.

Hart is in Oceana County, which as of Tuesday had 108 confirmed coronavirus cases and 3 deaths.

 “Do you really want your child to come to school for two days and stay home the rest of the week? Because that’s what’s being discussed in Lansing,” Platt said. “Do you want your child to participate in a sport and you not being allowed to watch it? That’s being considered.

“When I compare the COVID situation to the poverty and trauma and social emotional [price of being out of classrooms], I just have to have the kids in school.”

In Detroit, hit hard by the pandemic, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti is taking a more cautious approach, with high school students possibly attending classes on alternating weeks, and auditoriums and cafeterias converted to classrooms for more social-distancing.

Vitti said Detroit Public Schools Community District – the largest in the state – “can’t wait that long (until June 30) to move forward with plans. I don’t think the state understands the logistical and operational challenges that need to be thought through in advance of implementation.”

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