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Whitmer: 'Very unlikely' K-12 schools will reopen this school year

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Under a plan to be announced next week by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Michigan high school seniors will graduate and no child will be held back as the result of a school district’s ability to provide face-to-face instruction during the COVID-19 closure.

Whitmer's statement came Friday a few hours after she told a Detroit radio station on Friday that it's "very unlikely" that Michigan's K-12 schools will open this school year.

Speaking on WWJ-AM (950), Whitmer said: "We are working diligently to come up with a plan to meet the needs of our kids. Anyone who's watching globally what's happening with this pandemic probably knows it's not going to be this year."

She also told the station that the plan for schools and students living in quarantine under the coronavirus outbreak "is not one that can be developed overnight, but it is in the works and should be announced soon."

Bobby Leddy, Whitmer's deputy press secretary,said the governor is committed to ensuring the needs of students, parents and families are met as the state navigates uncharted waters and that a plan for K-12 school will be announced next week.

"The administration is working together with teachers, administrators and education experts to fashion a solution that upholds the health, safety and education of Michigan students," Leddy said.

"Next week, we will announce our plans to ensure our seniors graduate and that no child is held back as a result of a district’s ability to provide face-to-face instruction during the COVID-19 school closure."

Whitmer shuttered all K-12 schools on March 12, sending 1.5 million school children home.

Steve Matthews, superintendent of Novi Community Schools, said he heard the radio interview and was "a bit surprised" by the governor's statement.

"We as superintendents in Oakland County had not heard anything like that, so it caught us a little flat-footed this morning," Matthews said. "What would have been more helpful  is for us to hear that 'these are things we are thinking about it' and it would be helpful to develop some answers."

Matthew said his district, like many others, has been providing learning opportunities at home for its students since K-12 schools were shuttered two weeks ago.

"If that is true, we are going to close, then we need answers for graduating seniors, how are we going to promote kids, what do grades look like? Right now, we don’t have answers to those," he said.

Gary Niehaus, superintendent of the Grosse Pointe Public Schools System, said he is looking for the governor to issue an executive order soon: "To know what we are doing now through the end the year," Niehaus said.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Michael Rice called this week on state lawmakers to grant K-12 districts waivers of instructional time mandates, Michigan's third-grade reading law and statewide assessment requirements to help schools cope with closures caused by coronavirus pandemic.

Asked about Whitmer's statement, Rice said the governor is working with public health experts to ensure the health and safety of Michigan residents to the maximum extent possible during this emergency situation.

"We support what she thinks is in the best interest of public health, without exception," Rice said.

Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools Community District, said Monday that K-12 schools in Michigan should be declared closed for the school year and districts should be required to develop an online learning platform.

On Friday, Vitti tweeted: "The governor is listening and this is inevitable. As a school district we will make the instructional and engagement shift to more online enrichment learning. The Legislature needs to maintain budgeted per pupil and 180 days of payment."

High school senior and honors student Abigail Bishop said on Friday she was shocked to hear news that the school year will likely be canceled for the Class of 2020 in Michigan.

"We had this plan, have spring break, have prom, have AP testing, graduate and have this honors ceremony, and it's all wiped clean," Bishop said. "It’s a shock to a planner like me."

Bishop, who attends Stevenson High School in Livonia, said she been trying to fill her days with schoolwork, talking to friends via texts and FaceTime and checking Twitter for updates on the school closure.

Whitmer's statement left her with more questions, she said

"Everything is up in the air. Will seniors have credit forgiveness or would we still have online school?" Bishop asked.

Still, if she could speak to the governor, Bishop says she would say high school seniors are willing to sacrifice their senior year and all of its milestones to keep the public safe and healthy.

"It did take me a couple days to think about it and get to this point," Bishop said. "At the end of the day, it will all work out, and it's for the greater good. We are going to make it through this for sure."

Parent Bill Kercorian said his daughter, Emma, who is a senior at Walled Lake Consolidated Schools, is working from sunrise to sunset on her schoolwork.

Kercorian would like the effort to count for grades even if students are out the rest of the year. He wants Whitmer to address next week whether online work at home will count for credit and grades and how she will make sure seniors graduate.

"She is doing more work now than she was before. I am reading that’s not going to count. I would have a real problem with that," Kercorian said. "I want grades, and I want the online learning to continue. I know the amount of work she is doing."

Gideon D’Assandro, a spokesman for House Speaker Lee Chatfield, said on Friday that "conversations are still ongoing with the governor and the Legislature on the best way to handle the impact on schools."

Late Friday, two members of the State Board of Education, sent Whitmer a letter saying she should use her authority within the state’s Emergency Management Act so students can have continuity through distance learning and the ability to obtain credit for that learning.

Tom McMillin and Nikki Snyder, the only two Republican members of the state board, told Whitmer in the letter that Rice has "failed" to act under his own authority as state superintendent.

"Though districts across the state are working to reach kids, Superintendent Mike Rice has not worked with these districts within his authority to grant them seat-time waivers appropriate to the work they are completing," the letter says.

"Considering that it is unlikely that public schools will reopen this year and in the absence of the leadership we need now from MDE, we ask that you lead," the letter said.

Two state lawmakers who are former teachers called Thursday for an early end to the school year given the projected course of COVID-19 spread and the need to provide certainty and a path forward for districts and families. 

State Rep. Darrin Camilleri, D-Brownstown, and Sen. Dayna Polehanki, D-Livonia, Democratic vice chairs of the Michigan House and Senate Education committees, respectively, said they already have key pieces of legislation that would help the state complete a closure that includes forgiving days, fixing teacher evaluations and addressing third-grade retention.

Republicans control the House and the Senate. 

But the Democratic lawmakers said the quickest and most decisive way to close schools would be through action by the governor. 

“We are ready and willing to address this legislatively,” Camilleri and Polehanki said in a joint statement. “But to act faster and provide clarity for our school districts, we urge the governor to close schools for the rest of the year to protect our students, teachers, and families.” 

The legislators also called for immediate decisive action to allow districts to plan for the summer and beyond. 

“Above all else, we need a swift decision so districts will know where they stand,” Camilleri and Polehanki said. “We know that deciding to close school would lead to many additional questions, and we are ready to work with the Governor’s office, the Department of Education, and our local school districts to make this work for everyone.”

Chris Wigent, executive director of the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators, said his organization looks forward to participating in future planning if students do not return to school this year.

"We look forward to participating in the planning to ensure that if students in fact do not return to school this year, that we have a high-quality, child-focused plan in place to implement across the state," Wigent said.

jchambers@detroitnews.com