Opinion: Here's how Michigan schools can reopen this fall

John P. Bailey and Frederick M. Hess

This spring has been a stark reminder of just how vital our schools are. In Detroit — indeed, in cities across Michigan and nationwide — parents are doing their best with kids who have been locked at home and engaged in remote learning for two months. But as the shortfalls of remote learning become increasingly apparent, many parents are wondering when their children will return to brick-and-mortar schools.

While the urgency of reopening schools as soon as it is safely possible should be self-evident, many education leaders seem to be equivocating on the question of whether school will be back in session in the fall. Of course, it’s one thing if health officials determine that it is not safe to reopen schools come Labor Day.

But when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and state health officials determine that it is appropriate to begin “Phase 5” of the Michigan’s recently released “Safe Start” plan and give schools the go-ahead, schools need to be prepared to welcome students back. The planning must start now.  

Just what will it take to get schools ready, amidst enormous uncertainty? 

To tackle that question, we worked with a bipartisan national task force of 19 educational leaders — including former state chiefs, superintendents, federal education officials, and school leaders — to develop a blueprint to help states, communities and schools address these challenges. 

Here are five key places to start.

Education Trust-Midwest is calling on Michigan's governor and Legislature to protect the state's most vulnerable students from steep budget cuts for which schools are preparing amid the coronavirus crisis.

Coordination, communication and flexibility will be crucial. Situations will vary profoundly across states and between different communities within the same state. Meeting local needs and addressing community concerns will be make-or-break for planning efforts. For instance, reopening plans for schools in Detroit, which has recorded 10,000 cases of COVID-19, should look different than plans for schools in the Upper Peninsula, where only 100 cases had been documented as of mid-May. Schools will have to coordinate in new ways with state and local health officials. They’ll need to communicate with stakeholders so that students, families, educators and community members are clear on expectations for academics and public health. 

Schools will have to examine every aspect of the school day — from classroom spaces to class schedules — and adjust to address new public health guidance. For example, schools need to devise plans that reflect physical distancing protocols or use temperature checks to screen students. The blueprint encourages other states to follow Michigan’s example with using Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer cards to provide additional assistance to children who normally receive free or reduced-price school meals. All of this will have obvious implications for staffing and costs, and is a budget line that both Washington and Lansing should help address. That said, as cities across Michigan face multimillion-dollar budget shortfalls and the state government projects a $3 billion budget hole for this fiscal year, school leaders should look for creative ways to cut expenses in advance of inevitable cuts to funding.

Reopening schools will also mean new challenges for staffing. Many staff (and some students) will be at risk to COVID-19 because of age or health conditions, raising questions about how to appropriate protect their well-being. In Michigan,roughly 12% of the state’s 85,000 teachers and 16% of the state’s 3,000+ principals are over the age of 55 and may not be able to return to the classroom due to being considered “vulnerable” to COVID-19. Districts and teachers’ unions should work together to revisit aspects of their labor agreements to help schools adapt new protocols and ensure that vulnerable teachers are able to work in ways that are safe and productive. And as school budgets, responsibilities and models evolve, schools and districts must be prepared to reevaluate their staffing needs.      

Health officials believe we are likely to see additional waves of the coronavirus next year. Schools should prepare for possible intermittent closures and have a continuity of learning plan in place that serves all kids with either online resources or printed materials. Congress needs to address home connectivity gaps to ensure students can participate in remote learning next year. In Michigan, for example, a recent analysis of broadband access by researchers at Michigan State found only 53% of students who live in small-town or rural areas have high-speed internet access, a necessity for live video instruction or taking an online course. 

This disruption to the school year has created broad academic challenges for students, particularly those most vulnerable before the crisis occurred. Schools may need to extend the school day or year to help students catch up on lost instruction. Michigan should commit now to ensure their assessments are administered in the spring of 2021 to help identify students who need extra help and better target assistance to close learning gaps. They should also commit to providing the social and emotional learning practices needed to help students as they make their way through this new normal.  

Michigan’s students, families and communities need their schools. Educators, district leaders and state policymakers have a duty to ensure that schools are ready to welcome kids back as soon as it is safe to do so. That work must start now. As veteran school leader and blueprint co-author Sharif El-Mekki has wryly cautioned, “Those who fail to plan, plan to fail.”

John P. Bailey is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, former White House adviser and former deputy policy director at the Dept. of Commerce, where he worked on the 2005 National Pandemic Preparedness Strategy. Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. They are the lead authors on the new AEI report, “A Blueprint for Back to School."