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Whitmer: Nearly all Michigan schools to open amid COVID. Ann Arbor, too.

Michigan will now only report school outbreaks involving three or more students and staff, rather than the old standard of two or more. (Shutterstock)

Facing intense public pressure, Ann Arbor Public Schools reversed course Wednesday and set a timeline for students to return to some face-to-face instruction for the remainder of this COVID-plagued school year. 

Ann Arbor’s school board vote Wednesday leaves just a handful of traditional public school districts among 537 in the state that do not already offer an in-class option or have not set a date for classrooms to reopen.

One district, Kalamazoo Public Schools, has announced that it will remain fully virtual for the remainder of the year.

In January, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer urged all schools in the state to, at minimum, offer an option to students to return to classrooms by March 1, this coming Monday. At the time she made that request, 35 percent of traditional and charter schools were fully remote. Those schools enrolled 511,000 out of the state’s about 1.5 million K-12 students.

However, with new COVID cases and deaths down across the state, 97 percent of traditional school districts will have classrooms open for at least part of the week for students who want to return, Whitmer said Wednesday. Some districts are using “hybrid” models, in which students split their time between homebound and classroom learning so that fewer students are in school buildings at any one time. 

“It’s clear we need to return (to classrooms),” Whitmer said Wednesday. “While some students have been successful with online learning, too many have struggled. Tens of thousands risk falling through the cracks.”

Reopening school buildings has been a rallying cry among some virtual school-weary parents and among Republican state leaders who have argued the Democratic governor hasn’t done enough to get students back in class. The criticism has been buttrussed by mounting research showing low COVID transmission rates in schools that follow basic safety protocols in communities without widespread infection.  

Experts say most students learn more in classrooms than through online classes. Whitmer also said there has been an increase in depression among children, some of whom have been isolated from their friends since March 2020. Students attending Michigan schools must wear facemasks, and schools have taken steps to increase social distancing.

A combination of declining COVID-19 cases and the growing availability of vaccinations for teachers have made school reopenings more feasible for superintendents and school boards concerned about the safety of students and staff.

State Superintendent Michael Rice applauded the return to classrooms. 

“While we need to remain vigilant, we also need to offer families in all districts at a minimum an in-person option for their children,” Rice said in a statement Wednesday. “In-person instruction is better for so many of our kids, socio emotionally and academically. Families deserve choices for their children’s education.”

Ann Arbor is one of the largest school districts in the state and had been one of the last districts to not set plans to return to classrooms since the beginning of the pandemic 11 months ago. Just last week, the school board appeared to recommend that most students remain in fully virtual learning for the rest of the school year.

But Wednesday, at Superintendent Jeanice Swift’s urging, the board voted to approve the option of some face-to-face instruction beginning March 25. Pre-K and kindergarten students will return first, with middle and high school students having the option to return April 12.

Another longtime holdout, Lansing Public Schools, announced plans last week to reopen in March.

Lansing and Ann Arbor are among eight currently closed districts with confirmed plans to reopen after March 1, leaving just a handful without plans, according to Whitmer officials.

Kalamazoo Public Schools announced that the district will remain fully virtual through the end of the school year. In Genesee County, the Flint City School District hasn’t set a return date, and classrooms at Southfield Public Schools in Oakland County aren’t open for the general student body

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