Whitmer's school plan: Students and teachers in masks, no visitors, spaced desks, cleaning

Lansing — School life in Michigan — from athletics to riding the bus to wearing masks in classrooms  — will depend on how much or little the COVID-19 virus is raging through regions of the state come the first day of school. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer released guidelines Tuesday for how Michigan's K-12 schools should reopen in the fall and said her administration would provide $256 million to help districts implement their local plans.

Depending on the phases of the Michigan Safe Start Plan, the governor's reopening playbook, students and teachers must wear masks most of the time except for eating.

Desks must be spaced six feet apart in classrooms and all arranged facing the same direction toward the front of the classroom. Teachers should maintain six feet of spacing between themselves and students as much as possible.

Visitors — even family members — won't be allowed in schools except in emergencies as decided by administrators.

Cleaning requirements say frequently touched surfaces — including light switches, doors, benches and bathrooms — must undergo cleaning at least every four hours with either an Environmental Protection Agency-approved disinfectant or diluted bleach solution.

Athletics would be allowed but with restrictions. Large indoor spectator events would remain suspended. Large outdoor spectator or stadium events would be limited to 100 people, and people not part of the same household must maintain six feet of distance.

Whitmer's order suggests athletics and extracurricular activities will not be offered in the fall in regions that are in Phase 3 or less of the governor's reopening plan. The executive order said private and public schools must develop reopening plans that "suspend athletics, after-school activities, inter-school activities (e.g., debate competitions) and busing."

Whitmer's latest executive order also requires school districts to adopt a COVID-19 Preparedness and Response Plan to lay out how they will protect students and educators across the various phases of her reopening plan. 

“Our students, parents and educators have made incredible sacrifices during our battle with COVID-19,” the governor said.

“Thanks to our aggressive action against this virus, the teachers who have found creative ways to reach their students, and the heroes on the front lines, I am optimistic that we will return to in-person learning in the fall."

The extra  $256 million for schools appears to stem from a $2.2 billion budget deal reached Monday between the Legislature and the governor. Much of that budget deal includes federal COVID-19 Relief Funds to help schools respond to coronavirus challenges.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer recently provides an update on COVID-19 in Michigan. With her is MDHHS Chief Deputy for Health and Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, right.

Three scenarios outlined

The plan, which was released by Whitmer and her COVID-19 Task Force on Education Return to School Advisory Council, envisions three scenarios for school opening in fall: 

• Schools open for in-person instruction with minimal required safety protocols in Phase 6. Northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula are in Phase 5 of her economic reopening plan, allowing for the opening of bars, restaurants and limited capacity in movie theaters and museums. The rest of the state has been in Phase 4, which has allowed limited-capacity dine-in eating and the reopening of bars.

• Schools open for in-person instruction with moderate required safety protocols in Phase 5.

• Schools open for in-person instruction with more stringent required safety protocols in Phase 4.

Public and private schools will not be allowed to reopen for in-person instruction if in phases 1-3, the plan says. In that case, students would be instructed remotely or online. 

During Phase 4, all students grades 6-12 and staff must wear homemade or disposable level-one grade surgical masks. Any student who cannot medically tolerate a facial covering must not wear one. 

In grades K-5, students must wear a mask unless they remain with their classes throughout the school day and do not come into close contact with students in another class.

All students must wear masks in hallways and common areas in the building except for during meals. Staff also must wear face coverings at all times except for meals. Any staff member who cannot medically tolerate a facial covering doesn't need to wear one.

Masks are expected to be worn by all students, staff and bus drivers during school transportation.

Homemade facial coverings must be washed daily, and disposable facial coverings must be disposed of at the end of each day. 

When considering ways to best mitigate the spread of coronavirus, the task force focused on face masks as the most practical mandate.

There are recommendations regarding six-foot distancing, but the task force understood the constraints on class sizes and public spaces, said Tonya Allen, chairwoman for the Return to Learn Advisory Council and CEO of the Skillman Foundation in Detroit. 

“The mask is the most important way we can prevent the transition of the disease,” she said.

Spacing recommendations

Schools located in regions that are under Phase 4 of Whitmer's economic reopening plan are recommended but not required to space desks six feet apart in classrooms.

“Class sizes should be kept to the level afforded by necessary spacing requirements,” the plan says.

Other recommendations include having teachers keep six feet of space between themselves and students as much as possible and keeping students as far apart as feasible in rooms where large tables are used. Schools also should post signs to indicate proper social distancing.

Busing is allowed under Phase 4 with no guidelines on the number of passengers but everyone must use hand sanitizer before boarding.

The bus driver, staff and students in grades prekindergarten-Grade 12, if medically feasible, must wear facial coverings while on the bus.

Vehicles must be cleaned and disinfected before and after every transit route. Children must not be present when a vehicle is being cleaned. 

Libraries, computer labs, arts and other hands-on classrooms must undergo cleaning after every class period with either an EPA-approved disinfectant or diluted bleach solution in this phase. 

Student desks must be wiped down with an EPA-approved disinfectant or diluted bleach solution after every class period.

'On edge of my seat'

West Bloomfield School Superintendent Gerald Hill said Tuesday the plan provides districts with good guidance "we have been needing for a while."

The governor's plan provides enough details over multiple phases that districts should be able to move forward and back when necessary, Hill said. The funding promised by Whitmer to pay for each district's COVID-19 Preparedness and Response Plan was welcomed, he said.

"I am happy to hear there is money attached to this," Hill said, "but the devil is in the details and how flexible it will be in terms of spending, the formula for districts and how we get it."

The school plan calls for “required” and “strongly recommended” safety protocols to keep school communities safe based on the status of the coronavirus. The plan also provides recommendations for mental and social-emotional health, instruction and operations depending on which phase of Whitmer's economic reopening plan each region is in.

Parent Lisa Rajt said Tuesday she thinks it will be a challenge for her son, an incoming seventh-grader in Ferndale Schools who is on the austism spectrum, to wear a mask at school. He struggles with sensory issues and becoming overheated, she said.

Rajt noticed the plan said if the state moves to Phase 5, masks in schools will not be required.

"For me, the takeaway from this plan is every person in the state needs to do everything possible so we are in Phase 5 when school starts," she said.

All the cleaning requirements in classrooms, buses and other parts of the schools are likely to be overwhelming for districts, Rajt said.

"People who work in schools are modern everyday heroes. In my district, they always rise to the challenge," she said.

The idea of moving from Phase 4 back to Phase 3 if the number of infections increases concerns Rajt.

"I am going to be on the edge of my seat until the first day of school," she said.

Natalie Krom and mother Joyce Krom, talking about Natalie going back to school, her first year in high school, in Huntington Woods, Michigan on June 29, 2020.

State guidance a good start

Randy Liepa, superintendent of Wayne RESA, and Ken Gutman, superintendent of Walled Lake Consolidated Schools, both say the state's guidance is a good start but uncertainty about future school funding makes it challenging for districts to plan for the new school year, even with the additional money promised by Whitmer.

Districts expect a cut of about $700 per student in state revenue for the 2020-21 year and have asked Congress to intervene.

"It’s the guidance we need. That is what school districts have really been looking for," Liepa said of Whitmer's plan. "At the end of the day, our staff wants to see kids back into school. Although there is no $700 cut this year, we may have it next year ($700-a-pupil reduction), and we still need a stimulus plan."

The governor's plan says districts and schools should plan to review the most current public health data released by the state every week. School officials are expected to hold weekly discussions with local public health officers to understand local public health trends, the number of positive COVID-19 cases, the proportion of positive cases, hospital capacity, testing capacity, whether a case is attributed to a cluster or specific event, and hospital staffing capacity.

"These requirements and recommendations are not always easy, but they are necessary. We must all continue to put safety first, leverage science, data and public health evidence to inform the decisions we make to serve each and every student in Michigan well," the plan says.

Without a plan approved by the local school board, schools across the state will not be able to meet for face-to-face instruction. 

Education leaders urged schools to cooperate with the executive order; activate local leadership for local decision making; find ways to capitalize on state financial resources and policy flexibility; support educators; and engage communities to help reinforce the way forward.

"While many school districts will doubtlessly go beyond the minimum guidelines listed here today, they are an important starting point for all of us," said Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbert.

Local health departments will be working with schools to tailor the executive order to local schools, said Nicki Britten, health officer for the Berrien County Health Department.

"The road map represents the best path forward for schools, given the reality that we face," she said.

The announcement came as a University of Michigan survey found one-third of Michigan parents might not send their children to public school this fall due to COVID-19 concerns.

The online survey, which assessed parental plans for in-person school in Michigan, Ohio and Illinois, found health-related concerns were among the most common reasons cited by parents who did not plan to send their child.

The online survey, published Friday by UM's Susan B. Meister Child Health Evaluation and Research Center, queried 1,193 parents of school-aged children in the three states June 12-22.

In Michigan, 66.7% of those surveyed said they likely planned to send their children to school this fall, 12.4% said they likely would not send them and 20% said they were unsure of their plans.

Huntington Woods parent Joyce Krom said Tuesday the guidelines make her feel comfortable to send her daughter to high school in Phases 4 through 6. Krom did wonder how class sizes would be handled if desks had to be moved six feet away.

"At Berkley High School, there are often 30-plus students in a classroom," Krom said. "There is no way to maintain safe distancing at those numbers so additional staff will be required. They will also need to hire more maintenance staff to meet the cleaning protocols. I just don't see how districts will be able to afford those."