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Michigan school districts struggle to set fall plans amid COVID-19

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Michigan will not have a uniform, statewide K-12 reopening plan this school year for its 544 traditional school districts and nearly 300 public school academies.

The first day of school for 1.5 million children will look different in every district in Michigan, where hundreds of different reopening plans will soon be underway as educators resume teaching amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Because districts have local control, each district is coming up with its own plan using guidance from the governor’s executive order on reopening schools, with some districts opening classrooms to students as early as Aug. 26.

Parent Deja Vasquez is happy with the Ferndale Public Schools’ decision to offer online-only learning this fall, saying she cannot envision a plan where her three children would be protected from the pandemic as infections increase in the state.

As more districts announce their intentions this month — all districts must have a plan approved and in place by Aug. 17 — differing reopening plans are fueling anxiety as parents grapple with different options, a lack of child care and even plan envy.

Some districts are still trying to figure out their plans, including Utica Community Schools, the state’s second-largest with more than 26,500 students. On Monday, school officials are proposing face-to-face instruction for all students starting Sept. 1, but say they are prepared to go online if and when it’s necessary. The district has already announced a virtual academy option.

Sabrina Swoish, a parent of a fifth-grader in the Macomb County district, says as she waits for the final plan so many questions are racing in her mind on what to do and how the district could possibly keep her daughter safe amid a pandemic.

"I worry about human interaction for my daughter, but most of all I worry about safety," Swoish said. "We worry for our children, but once we send our children to school, we have to worry about everyone else. Will they bring anything to my child, are they being safe and following social distancing?"

Swoish says she wants to do the right thing but is torn.

"If I send her to school, am I throwing her to the wolves or am I doing the right thing?" she said. "Does she need the human interaction? I know she needs face-to-face, but at what expense? This is a hard decision for everyone involved."

In recent weeks, teachers have threatened to not return to classrooms this fall if school buildings are not made safe at a time when districts face severe budget shortfalls.

The Michigan Education Association says it’s prepared to stand with local teachers’ unions that collectively decide school districts haven’t done enough to safeguard students and staff as they push to reopen.

And Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has voiced concerns about schools reopening to in-person instruction this fall, and opposed proposals to mandate that.

Statewide, there is no system tracking the type of plan a district is choosing, but educators say many districts that announced a desire for in-person learning have now switched to online only.

"From the people I have talked to, there is a very small number that are looking at face-to-face instruction," said Jennifer Smith of the Michigan Association of School Boards. "Most are looking at online for some length of time, for a marking period or a semester, and then evaluating.

"It’s the safety and protection of students and staff. Health and safety come first. We want to make sure everybody is safe."

Incoming freshman Zaquan Ellison, right, gets school supplies from Southwestern 2020 graduate Zaria Sims at Southwestern Classical Academy drive-thru in Flint.

Across the state, most plans fall into three categories:

•100% online learning at home

•Two options: 100% face-to-face learning in school and 100% online learning available for all grades, K-12

•Limited in-person lessons and virtual learning for younger students K-8 and 100% online for high school students

School plans reviewed by The Detroit News have relied on Whitmer’s Safe Start Plan, which grades the threat of the virus to regions of Michigan from phases 1-6, with the first phase being "uncontrolled growth" and the last being "post-pandemic." Districts indicate online learning for phases 1-3 and transition to in-person learning beginning with Phase 4.

As of Sunday, much of the state is in Phase 4, or "improving," with the exceptions of the Upper Peninsula and 17 counties in northern Michigan, which are in Phase 5, or "containing."

Peter Spadafore, deputy executive director for the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators, said the while state will have hundreds of plans, there is a caveat.

"All-online will look similar, and all in-person will look similar," Spadafore said. "They are not uniform, but the variances are minimal. We are all talking to each other and learning from each other from the spring semester."

The state’s largest school district, Detroit, is offering both face-to-face learning for all 50,000 students, and a virtual option for those who want to stay home or need to stay home for health reasons.

Some districts, such as West Bloomfield, have hybrid reopening plans in which younger students are allowed into buildings for face-to-face learning with teachers but on a limited schedule, either half-days or alternate days. The rest of the time they will learn at home.

Royal Oak Schools officials had proposed elementary students attend school two days a week, with half of the students attending at a time. The other three days would be online learning from home.

But superintendent Mary Beth Fitzpatrick admitted on Friday as district officials looked at the logistics of bringing staff and students back together into buildings that too many health questions lacked answers.

"We didn’t have firm guidance on notification, closure for positive cases, contact tracing," Fitzpatrick said. "What triggers a classroom to shut down? What triggers a school to shut down?"

Deja Vasquez (from right) of Ferndale plays with her  children Antonio, 11,  Zoe, 8, and Juan, 5, as they prepare to start school at home online from their Ferndale apartment complex.

The Oakland County district will instead begin the school year online with plans to be virtual through the first quarter.

Wendy Zdeb, executive director of the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals, said she is seeing many districts abandon in-person learning, including Plymouth Canton Community Schools and the Grosse Pointe Public School System. On Sunday, some parents in the Pointes pushed back and protested no face-to-face learning to begin the school year.

"There is no doubt that many who planned hybrid and full face-to-face for the initial return have retreated from that position," Zdeb said. "If a survey was sent three weeks ago and another was sent today, the results would look very different."

Across Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties, districts are planning are a mix of remote-only and hybrid classes. Superintendents say plans are changing by the week, in response to COVID-19 statistics, a lack of PPE in some districts and parental concerns.

"None of them are planning to be off (remote) for the whole next year," said Randy Liepa, superintendent of Wayne RESA. "Even if they start online, they want to get kids into school as quickly as possible."

Oakland Schools Superintendent Wanda Cook-Robinson said some districts have chosen to start online as they wait for enough personal protective equipment. Some districts also are trying to determine if they have enough teachers to return to the classroom, Cook-Robinson said.

"That is so fluid it changes as of five minutes ago. Every single district will have a remote option; half will start online until Oct. 1," Cook-Robinson said.

Rochester Community Schools and Berkley Public Schools are starting the 2020-21 school year remotely with plans to transition to in-person learning at a later time.

Some parents are upset that only online instruction is being offered. Scott Schwenn has two children in the Berkley School District, which announced Aug. 3 that all learning would be online this school year, at least until Oct. 30.

That decision did not sit well with Schwenn, who said having districts that allow students to return to school and districts that do not could create tension among communities.

"I believe our children should be allowed back to school in August," he said. "The evidence surrounding COVID has been shown there are more than one model for prevention.

"We as people have to ask ourselves, what is the harm we can’t see we are causing by canceling sports and school. Parents miss work and how will they operate with new obstacles of another year of online nonsense?"

Ferndale Public Schools parent Deja Vasquez, on the other hand, is happy with her district’s decision to offer online-only learning, saying she cannot envision a plan where her three children would be protected from the pandemic as infections increase in the state.

"There is no way I can see them being safe," she said.

But what makes the decision to stay home even more palatable is that Ferndale is offering in-person, on-site drop-off learning labs for K-12 students in its school buildings.

The district says it will space K-5 students apart at tables in the gyms and cafeterias. Students in K-2 will be required to wear masks in the hallways and while seated at their assigned workstations as tolerated. Students in grades 3-5 will wear masks during the learning lab time and stay seated at assigned workstations.

The district will check students’ temperatures before they enter rooms and perform daily “fogging” of the learning labs to sanitize them. The labs will be open for three hours a day, four days a week.

Vasquez says she plans to take her children to the labs, which will offer kids access to technology, the internet, food and instructional support.

"I think it’s a great idea. That would be more like a private tutor," Vasquez said. "That would be easier for my kids to wear a mask for a few hours than wearing one all day at school."

Some large districts, such as Lansing, Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor public schools, have also announced they plan to start the new school year online due to the pandemic, which had reached 87,403 cases and 6,249 fatalities in Michigan as of Sunday.

Flint Community Schools, which is offering face-to-face instruction, hybrid learning and virtual instruction from home, launched its online learning program on Wednesday for its K-12 students. In-person instruction will begin more than a month later on Sept. 14, unless the governor announces a change in guidance for schools.

Superintendent Anita Steward said the district’s reopening plan is unique because it offers family supports and a focus on "whole child" learning in each environment.

Hamtramck Public Schools announced its students will begin school with online instruction, but the district is keeping its buildings open for students who need technology, food and other supports, including those with disabilities and individualized education plans.

“It’s just not the right time to go back," Hamtramck Public Schools Superintendent Jaleelah Ahmed said. “We have such a huge number of economically disadvantaged students and are 80% English (language) learners. We can’t just close our buildings. They will all be open."

jchambers@detroitnews.com