Whitmer: Michigan closing all K-12 school buildings

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

In a sweeping move, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced late Thursday night that the state is closing all K-12 school buildings.

The governor said the school buildings will be shuttered — public, private and boarding — to students from Monday until April 6. 

“This is a necessary step to protect our kids, our families and our overall public health,” Whitmer said in a statement.

“I am working with partners across state government to ensure educators, parents and students have the support they need during this time, and to ensure our children who rely on school for meals have access to food.

"I know this will be a tough time, but we’re doing this to keep the most people we can safe. I urge everyone to make smart choices during this time and to do everything they can to protect themselves and their families.” 

The governor's announcement comes as the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services confirmed Thursday night that 10 new individuals tested positive for coronavirus, bringing the statewide total to 12.

“Closing our K-12 school buildings is the responsible choice that will minimize the risk of exposure for children, educators and families and mitigate the spread of coronavirus,” state Superintendent Michael Rice said in a statement.

“The Department of Education will continue to work closely with our partners in state government to help our students and educators in each school district get through this time. This is about protecting the most people in Michigan.” 

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state's chief medical executive, added: “Closing our school buildings is the smart thing and the right thing to do for the public’s health.

"These actions will help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in Michigan. I will continue to work with Governor Whitmer and our four COVID-19 task forces to ensure we protect our children, our families and our communities.”  

In a statement late Thursday, David Hecker, president at the American Federation of Teachers' Michigan chapter, supported the move. 

"While this is unfortunate news, we want to thank Gov. Whitmer for taking action," he said. "This health crisis deserves all necessary precautions to protect students, school employees and families across Michigan.

"... This is a time to come together as schools and communities and do what we can to help one another and protect public health."

On Friday, officials with the Archdiocese of Detroit said it also was closing all its Catholic schools.

Kevin Kijewski, superintendent of Catholic schools for the archdiocese, sent a letter to parents that said he has instructed all of its 87 schools to close.

"Please be reassured that the safety and well-being of our students and employees is always our top priority," he wrote. 

When asked if the three-week closure would extend the school year, Whitmer said during a press conference late Thursday that the shuttering date is not set in stone and a decision will be guided by developments in the outbreak as well as health authorities' recommendations.

The governor also told reporters that the issue of addressing whether to reschedule or postpone standardizing testing "is one that we will grapple with, as will many states."

Prompted by the spread of coronavirus to Michigan, education leaders jumped into action early Thursday, some preemptively closing entire districts and preparing teachers to shift lessons online so students can learn at home.

Detroit Public Schools Community District, the state's largest district, announced Thursday night that it would be closed to students on Friday. Staff would still report for work to prepare for the extended closure of schools, the district said.

Some districts are sending surveys home to parents to gauge whether students have internet service at home and devices to access homework online. According to 2018 U.S. Census data, 12% of Michigan households lack a computer while 21% lack an internet connection.

West Bloomfield school officials, who announced classes would be canceled Friday, told parents Chromebooks will be issued to students in grades K-6 who do not have a suitable device for learning at home. Students in grades 7-12 should already have a device, either provided by the district, or a personal computer, school officials said.

Grosse Pointe schools are closed Friday. In both districts, staff have been asked to report to prepare students for remote learning.

The Troy School District and Clawson Public Schools also announced on Thursday that classes are canceled district-wide on Friday to allow for online learning preparations. 

Livonia Public Schools said late Thursday after the city's mayor announced a confirmed case of the virus in a person from Livonia that all schools would be closed Friday.

"At this time, the closure is for one school day only," said a press release from Superintendent Andrea Oquist. 

The Archdiocese of Detroit canceled classes on Friday and Monday for all 87 Catholic schools to allow staff time to prepare for long-term closure and to complete deep cleaning of all school facilities.

Berkley Public Schools has asked parents to fill out a survey to gauge internet access and whether students had a device at home to do schoolwork online.

"As we prepare for all possible scenarios, we are asking you to also think through a plan for your family in the event schools were to close for an extended period of time," Berkley Superintendent Dennis McDavid wrote. "While you make these plans, we ask that you take this 5 question survey to share if and how you connect to the internet at home."

The Rochester district made the decision late Wednesday, putting a statement on its website that the health and safety of students, staff and community is its highest priority.

"We are committed to providing our families with updates as new information about the coronavirus, COVID-19, becomes available," the statement says. "Rochester Community Schools will be closed for students, including School-Age Care (SAC) and Teen Enrichment Activities for Middle School (TEAMS), on Thursday and Friday, March 12-13, so we can provide training to staff if it becomes necessary to engage students in remote learning outside of the classroom."

West Bloomfield officials posted a statement on the district's website saying they will hold a "contingency planning day for Cloud learning" on Friday for staff only.

District officials said their remote learning instruction plan includes the continued use of Google Classroom.

"A vast majority of our students and staff are already utilizing this tool. We are confident that our students will still receive the same high-quality education they receive each day by using this instructional aid," a statement by the district said.

District officials also said they will be discussing the challenges surrounding closing schools for a prolonged time, including students with limited access to the internet and those who rely on its food service program.

On Wednesday, Dearborn Public Schools closed one of its elementary schools in response to concerns about the spread of coronavirus. Officials announced at a press conference that a staffer at Whitmore-Bolles Elementary had been in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.

The school will be closed until the staff member's test results are available, Superintendent Glenn Maleyko told reporters. He did not identify the person.

Whitmore-Bolles is being closed “out of an abundance of caution" but “we have no information right now that leads us to believe others should be concerned,” he said.

Rochester schools parent Andrea Stainbrook said she learned about the school closure around 9 p.m. Wednesday. She has two children in elementary school.

"I am very comfortable with the decision. I know it can create obstacles with child care and families do worry about feeding children," Stainbrook said. "I am in a place where I don’t want to be panicked, but I want to be prepared. If this lessens the spread of this, I am on board."

Jamey Fitzpatrick, president and CEO of Michigan Virtual, which provides online courses for Michigan students and professional development for educators, said schools should continue to put student safety issues first, while also taking steps to develop local learning continuity plans.

"We need to address important access and equity issues; however, a large percentage of Michigan's students have a smartphone and/or access to an internet-connected computer at home that could support the continuation of learning,” Fitzpatrick said.


Staff Writer Mark Hicks contributed