In Michigan, school’s up in the air for summer

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Michigan school districts are pondering what summer school might look like, sending surveys to parents this month to gauge interest for in-person classes, exploring options for test runs in July and awaiting updated public health orders from state officials.

K-12 districts have not been cleared to hold summer school inside district buildings, as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's executive order closing school buildings due to COVID-19 remains in effect through the 2019-20 academic year, which ends in June.

Shane Trelfa,13, and his sister Hope,7, pose on the front porch of their Oak Park home, Monday, May 11, 2020. Their mother Jori Trelfa wants to send her son to summer school this summer because he has benefited from the extra support in years before.

That has not stopped some districts from making tentative plans for summer school sessions.

In Novi Community Schools, more than 200 students have registered for summer school, which is scheduled to start June 29, pending a change in the state's emergency orders.

Superintendent Steve Matthews said summer school in the district has historically been well attended by high school students and has been focused on advancement — adding extra classes to schedules — not remediation.

Matthews said by the end of June, students will have been out of school buildings for more than three months. Many families are ready for their children to return, he said.

"Summer school this year takes on an added importance. It provides us with the opportunity to get in front of students and strengthen their skills and get them ready for the fall," Matthews said.

Still, Matthews acknowledges this year, some students will experience learning loss, and he said summer school, which last year attracted 500 students, will be a boost to anyone who attends.

Matthews said the district does not know whether the state will allow the district to hold summer school, but families are asking for it.

"They haven't been in school since March 16, and although we provided a robust online program, we know it’s not the same for every student. We know students aren't moving as quickly and doing as much as an in-class experience."

The district is also planning to offer refresher courses in math and reading over the summer to K-6 graders and middle school students.

Although summer school is typically for middle and high school students who have failed a class, Whitmer's executive order said no student would be held back because of the pandemic and schools would continue to educate students through distance learning plans until the end of the school year.

That means summer school will not be mandatory, but an option for families who want more academic engagement for their child.

DPSCD Superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

'Eager to return'

Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Community District, said he thinks it's important to start planning to open buildings for face-to-face summer school as soon as July, pending the lifting of the governor's stay-at-home order and the ability to create safe conditions for students and staff.

Vitti, whose district has 51,000 students, said summer school, which would be optional for students and paid for staff, would be a way to better prepare for schools opening in the fall.

“We are still working on the details, but we know that many of our students are eager to return and many parents know their children need face-to-face academic support," Vitti said.

"We want to address this need in the safest way possible starting this summer. ... We can envision a hybrid of face-to-face instruction and online learning for both enrichment and credit/grades K-12.” 

Vitti said he envisions opening up a set of schools in each section of the city with smaller class sizes to ensure social distancing measures. Classrooms would be cleaned after use, movement in the hallways would be restricted and students and staff would likely be expected to wear masks and gloves, he said.

"We would also consider mandatory COVID testing for employees who would be working with students," Vitti said. "These are only concepts at this time. We will work more on these details during the upcoming weeks. Obviously, all of this is dependent on the governor and Legislature lifting the shelter-in-place.”

Asked about the possibility of summer school inside district buildings, Robert Leddy, a spokesman for Whitmer, said the governor's No. 1 priority remains protecting the public health of Michigan residents.

"In order to safely begin to plan for in-person instruction in light of the coronavirus pandemic, school districts will have to build protocols that take into account best practices to protect the health and safety of students, educators, administrators and support staff," Leddy said. 

Whitmer has been in contact with the state’s top educational and medical professionals to ensure that students can receive the education they deserve in a safe environment, he said.

"As additional restrictions are lifted, we will consider the ability for K-12 schools to offer in-person instruction," Leddy said.

FILE - Superintendent Nikolai Vitti high fives Caimile Moreland, 5, in the hallway during his visit at Schulze Elementary School.

'Different answer this year'

In Oakland County, the Berkley School District sent a survey to parents last week asking if they are interested in summer school for their child, whether they preferred online, in-person or a hyrbid summer school and whether they would pay for summer school.

Scott Francis, director of teaching, learning and technology in Berkley schools, said the district knows summer school would have to look different this year.

"District and building administrators are talking about what it might look like. Teachers and families are, too," Francis said. "One question for me is: How many families are interested in summer school? We had a sense this would be a different answer this year."

So the district sent out its first survey last week and will repeat the survey every few weeks to better understand families' needs.

"There is an increased interest in families based on last year's numbers. We had 230 students saying 'yes, we are interested for this summer,'" Francis said.

Last year, the district had 103 elementary students and had 89 secondary students in its summer school program.

Francis said the intent of summer school this year would be on credit recovery for high school students, so they can graduate next school year, and on skills and literacy for younger students.

Meetings with school officials to talk over summer school are planned for this week. Early survey results also showed 300 families said they were unsure about wanting summer school for their child.

"Some of it will come down to which phase we are in with governor's plan. We are in an online-learning mindset and hoping for some face to face," Francis said.

Some parents, such as Carla Osborne of Berkley, have already decided they do not want to send their children to summer school due to concerns about health and safety.

"I’m not comfortable sending my kids into a classroom just yet," Osborne said. "It’s hard to say with things changing daily. We may be in a better place in July, and then again, we may be right back to where we started."

Osborne, who has a daughter in high school and a son in middle school in Berkley, said putting 10 students, who live at home with parents and other siblings, into a classroom together creates too many health risks.

"We need a longer stretch of not being together. I am still worried about September and the flu season," she said. "We can go back and do things for education. We can't bring people back to life."

Jori Trelfa of Oak Park said she is considering summer school for her seventh-grade son, who has some learning disabilities and needs extra support.

Trelfa, whose children also attend the Berkley School District, said she would be more comfortable with an online summer class but would allow her son to attend summer school inside a school building if officials can keep classes small, such as 10 or fewer students, and classrooms clean in between sessions.

"We've done summer school in the past. It's been extremely beneficial not to have the break in between semesters," Trelfa said. "No kid wants to go to summer school. But he knows after seeing how much it helped him last year that it would help him to go again."