Governor Gretchen Whitmer says the doors to school buildings are locked for the rest of this school year. This is not a surprise. It just makes permanent an earlier order that temporarily closed schools. That was to buy time to come up with plans to address the rapid spread of the coronavirus. But the governor says it won’t be safe anytime soon for students and teachers to return to school.
Governor Whitmer said the grim reality is new COVID-19 cases are still being identified faster than the ability of the health care system to deal with them. So, she said, 1.5 million Michigan students from kindergarteners to high school seniors will finish out the school year at home.
”All in-person instruction for K-12 students will be suspended. And all school buildings will be closed for the remainder of this school year.”
Whitmer said that will help slow the spread of the virus because schools are a vulnerable point where people gather and interact, and then return home to interact with others.
“This is the best thing that we can do for the health of our children, for the tens of thousands of educators in Michigan who work in our schools," said Whitmer. "This will ensure more kids and educators will return to school happy and healthy at the start of next school year.”
The governor says seniors will graduate, and state-mandated tests won’t be given. The governor’s order says school districts have to make their best effort now to assist students with at-home learning. But there’s no specific guidance on what that means.
Don Wotruba with the Michigan Association of School Boards says teachers, principals, and superintendents will have to quickly come up with plans to wrap up the final two months of the school year.
”And she didn’t do it in a kind of one-size-fits-all measure, which we appreciated representing all the districts in the state, because the needs are going to be different. Some schools may be able to deliver almost everything online. Others are going to be delivering curriculum packets to kids via bus with teachers doing teleconference calls and not using the computer at all.”
The disparity in these plans that are still being developed acknowledges a reality – that resources to deal with this depend a lot on geography and prosperity. High-speed internet is taken for granted across most of the state.
But Alex Rossman with the Michigan League for Public Policy says 266,000 kids in Michigan – a little more than 12 percent –don’t have high-speed internet available to them.
“Especially in rural areas in northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula, online learning is just a challenging approach for a lot of students and a lot of families.”
“We need to figure out the digital access issue and this has been a problem in our state for some time.”
Jamey Fitzpatrick is the president of Digital Michigan, a not-for-profit group that promotes on-line learning. He says the problem with digital access can’t be solved right now. But there are online resources to help parents, students, and instructors get through the immediate crisis.
“We need to step up and figure out how to support parents and guardians at home and figure out what their new role is in this different space,” said Fitzpatrick.
And, Fitzpatrick and others said, once the COVID-19 crisis is past, Michigan needs a plan to ensure better resources are available to help time schools, students and families deal with a health or weather crisis that will keep kids at home for an extended period.