Experts see path to safe school reopening in Michigan, but uncertainty lingers

Lansing — Michigan's 1.5 million students can safely return to classrooms this fall, but it will require a series of precautions within school buildings and potentially, additional restrictions to stem the spread of COVID-19 outside of them, public health experts say. 

With the first day of class seven weeks away, education officials report lingering questions about whether they'll have enough funding to implement needed safety measures, concerns that many parents will keep their kids home regardless and anxiety that's "off the charts."

Reopening Michigan's K-12 schools during a pandemic will be a massive undertaking, but superintendents across the state say it must be done.

Asked if he's feeling pressure, Steve Patchin, superintendent of the Hancock Public School District in the Upper Peninsula, the region with the fewest COVID-19 cases in the state, responded with a yes on Thursday, 47 days before his 700-student district's first day of class.

Dania Bazzi, superintendent of Ferndale Public Schools, demonstrates 4 feet of distancing from a desk in a classroom at Ferndale Middle School.

"We’re working with our teachers. We’re working with our parents. We’re working with our students," Patchin said.

"The pressure comes with a word. It’s called ambiguity," he added, referencing unanswered questions about funding and what reopening will look like.

Masks, increased ventilation, social distancing measures and testing protocols are all needed to limit the chance of an outbreak inside schools, public health experts say. But they add that what happens outside them is also important: The rate of infections must remain low, and that might take sacrifice from people across the state regardless of whether they have family members who learn or work in school buildings.

Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, said he's not sure states, including Michigan, can afford to continue allowing indoor dining at restaurants if they want schools to reopen. Yet Jha, who has school-age children, said there's clear harm in students missing in-person instruction, and that it's rare for a child to become very sick from COVID-19.

“I don’t think there’s a huge risk to them if they go and end up getting infected," Jha said.

Getting the rates of the virus as low as possible in communities "is the best thing we can do for our kids right now,” said Emily Toth Martin, an epidemiology professor at the University of Michigan.

The question of whether it's safe to reopen schools has garnered the national spotlight as President Donald Trump has called for students to be back in class, unions representing school staff have voiced concerns about teachers' safety, and parents have been left wondering what's best for their children.

"We’re fighting for basic PPE (personal protective equipment)," said David Crim, a spokesman for the Michigan Education Association, a union that represents school personnel. "You show me that you’re providing that, then our members will feel a hell of a lot better going back into the classroom."

A 'critical' moment

While most Michigan schools begin their years at the end of August or the start of September, the need for answers is pressing as families and staff make plans for what reopening during a pandemic will look like. Also, any effort to change the trajectory of COVID-19 cases will likely take weeks to show results.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has called the moment "critical" and said the state is at a "turning point." The virus peaked in Michigan in April but new cases and the percentage of tests that bring positive results — two indicators of the virus's spread — have been on the rise.

"It is incumbent on all Michiganders to do our part," Gov. Whitmer said. "...This is what’s at stake if we want to keep our kids back in school and keep our economy engaged.”

The governor told CNN's Anderson Cooper on Tuesday night that if the trajectory of cases is headed upward, it probably won't be safe to reopen schools

"That’s why tightening right now when things are still relatively good compared to what’s going on across the country is really important," said Whitmer, who instituted penalties for people who enter public spaces without masks last Friday.

While the governor has highlighted the trajectory of cases, school personnel want to see more investment from the federal government in making buildings safe. They remain concerned that a virus that's been linked to more than 6,000 deaths in Michigan will still find its way into schools.

Whitmer has said she's not sending kids and the state's education workforce back to school "unless it's safe."

Under the governor's "Return to School Roadmap," schools can reopen to in-person instruction if their regions are in Phase 4 of the state's reopening plan. Currently, most of Michigan is in Phase 4, a phase that's called "improving." Two regions of the state — northern Lower Michigan and the Upper Peninsula — are in Phase 5, meaning conditions are better.

If the state drops back to Phase 3, called "flattening," schools would offer only online learning — a policy that would have wide-ranging implications for children's ability to learn and for parents' ability to return to work.

But some districts may take a more conservative approach regardless of whether Michigan remains in Phase 4.

On Thursday, the West Bloomfield School District in Oakland County announced it will not be sending its high school students back into the classroom this fall if the state stays in Phase 4, citing concerns that possible intermittent closures and quarantine periods would disrupt learning.

Superintendent Gerald Hill said high school students would remain on the district’s cloud learning program while K-8 students, separated into two cohorts, would learn in a blended model of in-person instruction two days a week and remote learning three days a week. Wednesdays would be used to disinfect buildings.

Elementary class sizes would be limited to 15 students and middle school 18.

“Student and staff safety are a priority for our district; Phase 4 of the Return to School Roadmap has several requirements and strong recommendations that significantly restrict student movement in the building and interactions with large numbers of students,” Hill said in an email.

“It is not feasible, in a large comprehensive high school like ours, to effectively mitigate the risks to staff and students. We believe we would face intermittent closures and quarantine periods, which are significantly disruptive to student learning.”

When the Detroit region reaches Phase 5 — labeled "containing" — all students and staff will return to five days of in-person instruction each week, Hill said.

Schools prep in-person plans

Dania Bazzi, superintendent of Ferndale Public Schools, stood in front of a high school classroom this week and inspected the space between the 30 empty desks that fill the majority of the room.

Bazzi pulled two desks apart, used her own feet and counted out loud to estimate what four feet from student mouth to student mouth looked like. It wasn't much.

Bazzi, a former math teacher, said she cannot space students six feet apart — the distance recommended but not required by the governor's roadmap to school reopenings — because she simply does not have the classroom space in her Oakland County district.

"The honest answer is no, we can’t implement everything. We can’t ensure six feet per desk in every classroom," Bazzi said. "Our buildings are at 85 to 90% building capacity, and so if you have classrooms that are a certain square foot and a certain number of kids, the math won't add up."

With students wearing masks, Bazzi said she can do the four-foot spacing, but that measure is only the beginning of the challenges she and hundreds of other educators face this summer as they prepare to reopen school this fall for the state’s K-12 students under fluctuating pandemic conditions.

“Kids are going to have to be very disciplined. So when the bell rings, what do most do? I usually have 20 kids standing here getting ready for a race,” said Bazzi, standing near the classroom door. “We have to do ‘this row go and this row go’ and stay four to six feet apart." 

Each district in Michigan is creating its own back-to-school plan, and most will have options for in-school learning, remote learning at home and a third hybrid option. Still, region to region, each superintendent faces his or her own challenges.

Take Thomas McKee, superintendent of Whitefish Township Community Schools, on the shores of Lake Superior, who says students wearing masks during the school day will be a particular challenge in his Upper Peninsula district.

"We live in an area where there are a lot of people that have not completely bought into the health impacts that this novel virus holds, and we have a few people that believe this is a hoax," McKee said. "How can I mandate a child from this type of family to wear a mask when they have been told it’s a hoax?"

McKee says physically spacing his entire K-12 population of 60 students and seven teachers is possible, but he worries forcing space between students will impact their social and emotional health.

"Our physical spacing should be OK, but it means that our classrooms are going to be tight," McKee said. "We are looking at an outdoor classroom building as well as using our gym and stage as classroom space. This is going to be an interesting time."

Steve Matthews, superintendent of the Novi Community School District, said his 6,700-student district is planning to offer in-person learning and online options. For the in-person option, teachers will wear masks, and sanitizer and disinfectant wipes will be widely used. Face shields — made by a school robotics team — will also be available for staff, he said.

"What we can do is try to create as safe of an environment as possible," Matthews said. "But we cannot guarantee that there will be no risk at all.”

Three weeks ago, the district surveyed parents about reopening, he said. In response, 85% of parents in the Oakland County district said they would send their kids back for in-person instruction. Matthews acknowledged, however, the percentage might have dropped as COVID-19 cases increased in Michigan in the last three weeks and as parents began thinking more seriously about the reality of sending their kids back to school.

At Flat Rock Community Schools, a Wayne County district with about 2,000 students, superintendent Andrew Brodie's preference is to have in-person instruction this fall with an online learning option for families who aren't ready to send their students back to school.

"If I had my druthers, we would be in school five days a week," Brodie said. "I don’t know if we’ll able to do that."

There's also a possibility for a hybrid system with some students getting in-person instruction two days a week, others getting it on two different days a week and a fifth day being used for cleaning the buildings, Brodie said.

Asked if he envisions teachers wearing masks when they return to the classroom, Brodie said he thinks teachers will wear what's appropriate for their level of instruction. Some elementary school teachers, he said, might have to wear face shields instead of masks so students can see their mouths when learning the proper sounds of letters.

At the Hancock Public School District in the Upper Peninsula, Patchin said masks and face shields will be available for teachers. But Patchin said he's already heard from parents who said they won't send their children back to class if students are required to wear masks throughout the day.

Then, there's the ongoing funding questions about whether state and federal governments will unleash more dollars to help school districts that are already facing budget cuts meet the challenges that are ahead.

"The anxiety level is off the charts," Patchin said.

Will school be safe?

The safety level of schools will largely depend on what happens with COVID-19's spread over the coming weeks in Michigan and whether schools can institute precautions to boost social distancing and provide personal protective equipment for teachers and students, health experts say.

Martin, the epidemiology professor at the University of Michigan who's previously advised the Whitmer administration, has a daughter in middle school. Asked if she would send her daughter back to class with Michigan's current infection rates, which have ticked upward in recent weeks, Martin said they talked about that question earlier this week.

"I think if we are where we are right now, we’re comfortable with her going," Martin said. "Some of that is because I am pretty confident that she has a good head on her shoulders in terms of masking and distancing."

Plastic cups spell out "we miss you" in a fence near Midway Early Learning Center, a school in Holt. Schools in Michigan have been closed to in-person instruction since March 2020.

Wearing masks, increasing social distancing, reducing the number of times students move between classrooms and creating one-way hallways are some of the strategies Michigan schools can use to prevent the spread of COVID-19 this fall, Martin said.

Personal protective equipment for staff and students is going to be key to safely reopening schools in the fall, health experts added.

Jha of Harvard said he wants to see students older than age 10 wearing masks throughout the day, instruction taking place outside as much as possible and testing and surveillance programs in place to monitor the spread of the virus.

Social distancing within schools is important, but Jha said he's not convinced it's critical. He would stop school assemblies and gatherings in cafeterias for meals, he said.

But the No. 1 strategy to keeping schools safe is ensuring that virus levels remain low in the communities surrounding schools, Jha added. As it stands, Michigan is in pretty good shape on that point, he said.

If virus levels are low and there's a plan in place to reduce the chance of spread, it's a reasonable decision to reopen schools to in-person learning, said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, vice dean for public health practice and community engagement at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The health experts and representatives of teachers unions both agreed older teachers or those with specific health risks should be given the option to work from home.

David Hecker, president of the American Federation of Teachers Michigan, raised questions about what will happen when someone violates a COVID-19 requirement, such as wearing a mask, and what schools can do to increase ventilation in old buildings with windows that don't open.

Asked what he would say to a parent with a full-time job who's struggling to decide whether to send their children back to school, Hecker said they should look at the COVID-19 data and make the judgment that's best for their children.

"I totally, completely understand," Hecker said. "I greatly sympathize with your situation. There is no real concrete answer here."