Gov. Whitmer urges all schools to offer in-person option by March 1

Lansing — Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration set a goal Friday for all schools to offer an in-person learning option for their students by March 1, nearly a year after she first closed K-12 buildings because of the coronavirus.

Whitmer announced new guidance for schools as some districts have offered only online courses for the last 10 months. During a press conference inside the Capitol, the governor said she wanted schools to provide "as much face-to-face learning as possible."

"The value of in-person learning for our kids is immeasurable, and we must do everything we can to help them get a great education safely," Whitmer said. “Over the last 10 months, medical experts and epidemiologists have closely followed the data and have learned that schools can establish a low risk of transmission by ensuring that everyone wears a mask and adopting careful infection prevention protocols."

The new guidance from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services says schools should assign children to cohort groups and limit their interactions to those groups in a bid to reduce their number of contacts.

The department also wants schools to keep children 6 feet apart from one another to the "extent feasible," provide "adequate hand sanitizing supplies" and improve air ventilation. Anyone who is considered a "close contact" of someone who tests positive should quarantine for 10 days, according to guidance shared Friday.

Some Michigan schools have offered only online courses since March 15, five days after the state reported its first cases of COVID-19. Many schools reopened in the fall as infections declined. However, when the second wave hit Michigan, the governor halted in-person instruction at high schools in November. She lifted that requirement in the days before the Christmas holiday.

The state's new goal falls short of a requirement. Michigan has 800 districts that have their own "unique situations," Whitmer said, noting she wants in-person learning available, especially for younger students.

The announcement came after a Wednesday press conference where Whitmer announced the state will open up vaccination opportunities to teachers, front-line workers and all Michigan residents older than age 65 beginning Monday.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announces, during a Jan. 8, 2021, press conference, a goal to have all school districts offer an in-person learning option by March 1, 2021.

In a Friday joint statement, education advocates and school union leaders said it is time to work together to plan how to safely reopen schools, and with a new variant of the virus on the rise, officials must remain vigilant and be 100% committed to safety measures.

“Even with vaccinations and declining infections, we must continue to take aggressive steps to mitigate spread of the virus,” said David Hecker of the American Federation of Teachers Michigan, Don Wotruba of the Michigan Association of School Boards, Tina Kerr of the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators, Ray Telman of Middle Cities Education Association and Paula Herbart of the Michigan Education Association.

They added, “With half a year of school left, now is the time to work together at the local level with all stakeholders — teachers, support staff, administrators, board members, health professionals, and community members — to make sure we have safe and solid plans to return to in-person learning."

While students and educators have stepped up during online classes, learning is strongest when it happens face to face, said Adam Zemke, president of Launch Michigan, a partnership including education, business, parent, philanthropic and civic leaders.

"As our state’s teachers, administrators and support staff can be protected through timely vaccine access, an important marker is beginning to be set in place," Zemke said. "Our partners look forward to working in communities across Michigan to ensure this planned return to face-to-face instruction is safe and effective for everyone."

The governor’s announcement is welcome but districts will now need the support of health officials to provide vaccines and guidance to ensure that teachers and students can return to classrooms safely and successfully, said Robert McCann, executive director of the K-12 Alliance of Michigan.

"We have always agreed in-person learning is the best option for students and appreciate Gov. Whitmer’s belief in that," McCann said. "To be successful in that, however, now requires broad access to the COVID-19 vaccine for school employees and ensuring there is very clear guidance made available on when vaccinated employees can return to work."

In past weeks, Michigan reported decreases in COVID-19 infections and the rate of tests for the virus bringing positive results. However, there are concerns gatherings tied to the holidays could spur jumps in the near future.

Last week, the state reported 19,858 new cases of the virus. Since March 10, Michigan has reported 512,751 total cases and 13,054 deaths tied to it.

On Monday, Detroit superintendent Nikolai Vitti said students in Michigan's largest district will not return to in-person learning until at least February. Vitti cited the high COVID-19 positivity rates in the city and statewide.

Statewide, 9.5% of Michigan's coronavirus tests were positive last week, up from 8.2% the week before. But the rate had reached 14.2% from Nov. 29-Dec. 5. Through Thursday afternoon, Detroit's drive-thru testing results were 8.6% positive, according to the Detroit Health Department's COVID-19 dashboard.

Staff Writers Beth LeBlanc contributed.