Michigan school officials pitch tentative reopening plans
No one knows yet how public education will be delivered to Michigan's 1.5 million K-12 students this fall, but there are forces at work shaping how it could look.
School leaders in Michigan are offering up tentative new school year plans, mostly to satisfy the concerns of parents, students and teachers on what the school day will be like and what safety measures might be in place as the nation continues to battle COVID-19.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer appointed 25 members to her COVID-19 Return to Learn Advisory Council on Wednesday, including a student, educators, health experts and others who will formalize a process for determining how schools might be able to reopen in the fall.
The council will provide the COVID-19 Task Force on Education with recommendations on how to safely, equitably and efficiently return to school in the fall, state officials said.
"We must all work together to get this right," Whitmer said after making the appointments. "I know this group is prepared to carefully examine the data and consult with experts when helping me determine what is best for our kids."
While the governor has not given the green light for schools to make concrete plans for the new school year, that has not stopped many districts from offering proposals that parents, teachers and students can talk about.
Last week, Ann Arbor Public Schools, which has announced a start date of Aug. 31 for the new school year, proposed "shared learning time" that would have a partial in-person and partial virtual learning environment when the state is in Phase 5 of the governor's Michigan Safe Start Plan. The state moved to Phase 4 on Monday.
Ann Arbor Superintendent Jeanice Kerr Swift released a document to her school community that said a variety of settings or levels might occur in the district's blended instruction model, depending on public health guidance. For example, 25% to 50% of students might attend in-person learning approximately one to two days per week while participating in class virtually on other days of the week, Swift said.
"Whether students are attending at 25% or 50%, or at some other level, is dependent on whether small or medium-size gatherings are permitted to fulfill public health guidance," Swift said.
At a 25% setting, up to nine students may be present for in-person learning in a classroom in Phase 5 blended learning, and at a 50% setting, up to 16 students may be present for in-person learning, the document says.
Parents say they want information on possible school-day scenarios so they can start preparing for the return to school, just before or after Labor Day.
Erin Eagen said her district, Birmingham Public Schools, sent out a survey that impressed her for its scope of questions on what parents need and want for their children come fall.
"I feel like they are really trying to come up with a solution that balances the educational, psychological, and emotional needs of the students and families," she said. "They asked about what type of services might be needed if classes resume in the fall and even included things like help with anxiety over getting sick."
West Bloomfield Schools announced three potential instructional models if students and staff are unable to return to buildings this fall. The first has students attending in-person and online school on alternating days.
On Mondays and Tuesdays, 50% of students attend school in person while the other half learn online at home. Wednesdays are reserved for remote learning for all students. On Thursdays and Fridays, the other 50% attend in-school learning, while the other half stays home for online learning.
The second option is 100% online instruction for families who do not want their children returning to buildings at all in the fall. The third is a continuation of the current remote learning plan, which has all students learning at home.
"Our families, they are thinking about the fall, and we want to give them ample opportunity to see what we are thinking and give them time to respond," West Bloomfield School District Superintendent Gerald Hill said. "More than 900 families joined us in town hall meetings. There is high interest in this, and we are communicating with them."
A survey of West Bloomfield school families on the three options found 30% are interested in remote-only school, Hill said, and the other 70% want face-to-face instruction in school buildings.
Hill said he has been clear his plan is a set of options that can change based on guidance from county, state and federal health and education officials.
Asked why he put out a plan before the guidance was issued, Hill said: "We didn't feel we had the luxury of time to wait."
As districts try to plan for the fall, they are also faced with an estimated $2.39 billion revenue drop in the current and next year's state school budgets — amounting to a cut of about $685 for every student in the state.
State superintendent Michael Rice said Thursday that Congress is the only entity that has the ability to spare Michigan students from such devastating cuts and urged educators and the public to plead with federal officials for help.
In terms of reopening schools, Rice has said public health is among the most important considerations in the fall, affecting where and how children are educated.
"Our planning and plans will have to be nimble and will have to permit different flexibilities," Rice said. "In a local control state such as Michigan, there is wide variation in forms of education."
Asked whether students would be wearing masks in school in the fall, Rice said: “I can’t crystal ball what is going to be in three months for a host of reasons. … I will tell you if were we to start up today, yes, one imagines masks would be required. Whether that will be the case in September, it's hard to discern where we are going to be.”
Not having clear budgets makes it difficult to plan for the fall, school officials have said.
District leaders from Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties said Thursday they are looking at additional expenses of $2 million to $3 million a month to provide face masks for students and staff if school buildings reopen.
"We are reaching a point of how to reopen schools and what that might look like, and with no funding assurances, it's impossible to do," said Robert McCann, executive director of the Tri-County Alliance.
Dearborn School Superintendent Glenn Maleyko said his district cannot release a plan for school reopening until it receives direction from the state.
"State law spells out that students need to attend class in person 180 days a year for districts to receive their state funding," said Maleyko who will co-chair one of three workgroups related to the governor’s Return to Learn Task Force.
"While schools can get waivers for some students to attend online, it would take a change at the state level to permit students to attend school entirely online or even to develop a hybrid of half in-class and half online learning.
"The Return to Learn Task Force would be the ones to make such a recommendation."
Dearborn Public Schools also has formed its own reopening committee to look at the particulars of how its schools will operate in the fall, Maleyko said.
As part of that work, the district announced it's considering two new curriculum resources for next school year — in elementary English language arts and high school math — that both provide online resources for school and home use.
In Berkley Schools, superintendent Dennis McDavid said parents are anxious about the next school year, peppering officials with concerns and questions about what teaching and learning will look like and what kind of safety protocols will be in place.
In a letter to parents and the community sent last week, he said the district is planning for several scenarios for the new school year despite all the unknowns.
"We are planning for a traditional start to the year," McDavid said. "We are also planning for a start where online learning is continued for all students.
"We are also planning for a blend of traditional school and online school. What form this will take — will it be two days in school and three days at home, staggered start times, one week in school and one week off, etc. — hasn’t yet been determined. In the end, it may be that we offer more than one of those options and allow parents some choice."
McDavid said he understands multiple options create another set of unknowns, such as how many people choose which option, whether the district has the staff necessary to support each option.
The district is sending out a survey to ask parents what they want.
"We know that any option we choose has implications for parents, families and staff," McDavid said. "We also know that our decisions will focus around minimizing health risks for all."
Beth DeShone, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, a charter school advocacy group, said Michigan trails the rest of the nation with no plans to reopen schools.
She said school buildings have been closed for more than two months, and districts statewide have submitted “continuity of learning plans” for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year, but Whitmer and the state education department have yet to provide any public direction for the upcoming school year.
"A plan to safely reopen Michigan schools is long overdue," DeShone said.
She said Michigan's next school year plan needs to include a benchmark assessment by the start of the school year so teachers and parents can meet student needs for lost learning while out of classrooms.
Eagen, who lives in Southfield, said her son will be starting his freshman year in high school. She is disappointed it probably won’t look like a normal school year.
"Based on the last few months, I hope there is a way for students to attend in-person classes at least once or twice per week. I think it would make a big difference in my son’s level of engagement," Eagen said.
Any amount of in-class learning would have educational and social benefits, Eagen said.
"I am not certain if those benefits will outweigh the risks from a public health perspective, though. So as much as I support some return to classroom-based learning, I understand that we may need to continue sacrificing it to protect the health of our citizens," Eagen said.