Michigan school officials prepare for coronavirus impact

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

State education and health officials are discussing the coronavirus' potential impact on K-12 schools in Michigan in the wake of a warning from federal health officials that schools should prepare for a surge in cases nationwide.

Chris Wigent, executive director of the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators, sent an email to members Wednesday informing them of active discussions between officials at the Michigan Department of Education, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and others to ensure that superintendents and school districts are equipped to respond.

"I wanted to reach out to all of you and let you know that there are currently state-wide discussions taking place regarding this important issue between MDE, the Department of Health and Human Services, and other organizations," Wigent said in an email to members.

"MASA will work closely with these partners to provide information and resources to districts as soon as they are released with the intent being to make sure that you have the most up-to-date information," the email said.

Wigent said the purpose of the email was not to raise any additional concerns or to sound an alarm on this topic. No cases of coronavirus have been reported in Michigan.

"I would also suggest that if you have not done so already, that you reach out to your local/county health department just to touch base with them on this topic and ensure that the lines of communication are open," the email said.

On Thursday, Wigent said the state education and health departments indicated they will come out with guidelines and protocols for districts next week.

"We are really looking for direction from those two organizations. We look forward to seeing what they have," he said.

State education officials said school closure decisions are made by districts in Michigan, which typically means the local superintendent and may include the elected school board. State health officials said those decisions would be made made in conjunction with local public health officials.

"Since Michigan is a 'local control state' for school districts, deciding when to close schools due to bad weather, or health reasons, is a decision local district superintendents must make," education department spokesman Bill DiSessa said.

For health-related situations, school districts can decide whether to close a schools if attendance drops below 75%, he said.

Asked if schools in Michigan have closed before due to health-related outbreaks, DiSessa said a district closed in the Traverse City area due to a measles outbreak more than three years ago and a west Michigan district closed due to norovirus.

"But those are locally determined decisions, unless the governor declares a state of emergency as she did last year during the Polar Vortex," DiSessa said.

As of Wednesday, there have been 81,109 confirmed cases of the coronavirus worldwide and nearly 2,800 deaths, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control. In the U.S., 60 cases have been reported, with no fatalities.

On Thursday, the prime minster of Japan ordered schools closed for a month to help contain the spread of the virus there. China, where the outbreak originated, has already shuttered schools nationwide.

As of Thursdayin Michigan, 357 people have been referred to the state health department for assessment and/or monitoring of possible coronavirus, according to the state's website.

Five of those people were tested and all five came back negative. Three were from Washtenaw County, one from Macomb County and one from Oakland County.

Lynn Sutfin, a state health department spokeswoman, also said school closures would be local decisions made in conjunction with local public health officials.

"Information on impact of coronavirus (or other diseases like influenza, norovirus, chickenpox, and measles) including burden of disease in the community, specific exposures, or absenteeism would all inform the decision of school closures," Sutfin said.

"MDHHS advises local partners in this decision making and also coordinates with other state agencies such as the Michigan Department of Education when it is anticipated that outbreaks will impact routine operations," Sutfin said.

Novi schools superintendent Steve Matthews said parents have been emailing this week voicing concerns over the coronavirus and the district's plan to address it.

Matthews said the Oakland County district of 6,700 students will follow guidance from the CDC and the state health department if an outbreak occurs.

"We understand that parents have a right to be concerned due to closeness of kids in schools," he said. "We really want to protect our students."

Matthews said in the event schools are shut down for weeks, the district is discussing how it could provide services for students online so instruction and lessons can continue.

"This has never really happened before," he said. "The coronavirus is going to cause us some grief, it feels like."

Matthews said schools are deep cleaned and sprayed every day and hand sanitizers are positioned at various points in the building.

"The dilemma for us is we don’t know if or when it going to impact us," he said. "Our fear is it's beyond our control. We are making plans."

In terms of impacting graduating seniors who finish school a month ahead of other grades, Matthews said he believes the district has extra time for them to finish classes and take exams.

For the remaining grades, he said it's unclear.

"We are in uncharted territory trying to figure out what may happen to our students and staff," he said.

Sabrina Duncan, whose children attend Utica Community Schools, said this week she is worried about the virus spreading in classroom buildings and understands closures may be needed. But she has more questions for officials in her district.

"How will our children get an education and who will teach them? We can’t survive without our educators," Duncan said. "They are our top priority in our child’s education. They are the creators of amazing lawyers and doctors. Education in a classroom, to me, is so important."

Duncan wants to know how parents can help to stop the spread in the event the virus shows up in the community or school. 

"It’s a scary situation for us all," Duncan said.

Tom Watkins, former state superintendent and a proponent of online learning, said in China all schools have been closed for more than a month due to the coronavirus and students are being educated through online platforms.

"The technology is there to continue learning outside the confines of the four walls of a building, two bindings of a book or the normal six-hour school day," Watkins said. "The question is, has the state and local schools put in place processes and labor contracts that would allow this technology/innovation to be utilized if the coronavirus becomes a full blown pandemic in Michigan/America?"

"There is no reason why learning has to end because students can’t make it to their school building," Watkins said.