Editorial: Keep school closures as short as possible

The Detroit News

We credit Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for acting quickly and making tough decisions to keep Michiganians safe during this unprecedented time. But decisions shouldn’t be knee-jerk. When it comes to schools, especially, we would caution her from imposing restrictions that aren’t absolutely necessary. 

Whitmer closed all K-12 school buildings, including public, private and boarding schools, until April 6.

“This is a necessary step to protect our kids, our families and our overall public health,” Whitmer said in a statement.

More:Whitmer: Michigan closing all K-12 school buildings

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks at a press conference on Thursday, March 12, 2020, and announces the closure of schools in Michigan from March 16, 2020, through April 5, 2020.

That’s true, as Michigan seeks to contain the spread of COVID-19. As the April date approaches, however, Whitmer and school leaders — in consultation with medical experts — should closely evaluate whether extending closures would be in the best interest of students.

Some states are starting to cancel in-person classes for the rest of the school year. Kansas was the first to make that call on Tuesday, and California is expected to follow suit.  

The situation could change as quickly as it started, so we’d advise against making a similar call in Michigan. 

Whitmer seems to understand this, and at the press conference last week she said her decisions would be based on the current status of the outbreak — and the advice of health professionals. 

Similarly, we think it’s too soon for the state to be seeking a waiver from federal testing requirements. It’s very possible that the state will need to postpone the annual M-STEP test, but canceling it all together seems shortsighted. 

More:Michigan school chief: Waive reading law and M-STEP

State Superintendent Michael Rice and Casandra Ulbrich, the president of the State Board of Education, on Tuesday sent a letter to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos asking her to waive the testing mandate, given the pandemic. DeVos is currently reviewing waiver requests from the states. 

Again, the situation could change quickly, and it seems premature for schools to forgo one of the best measures to chart student performance and growth in the state. 

The outbreak has also pointed to an unpreparedness among districts to deal with this kind of crisis. With technology being readily available, schools should be able to transition to a model of online learning on a temporary basis.

And while we understand not every child has access to the internet or a computer at home, schools could work with the philanthropic community to make sure these students in need could borrow a computer. 

An extended break from learning is harmful to most students, but more so for children in poverty. Urban districts such as the Detroit Public Schools Community District will face a greater negative impact during the school closures. 

Recent guidance from the Michigan Department of Education to districts on transitioning to online learning makes it clear many districts don’t have an emergency plan in place.

“Only those districts and schools that can ensure that all students have equitable access to quality learning opportunities should pursue a full transition to online learning,” the memo states.

Our state leaders need to take this crisis one day at a time, and make the impact on students as minimal as possible while keeping them safe. But schools also need to better prepare for this kind of event in the future.