To safely reopen for in-person learning next fall, schools across the state will be required to enact one of a range of safety plans based on the COVID-19 threat level their particular region is facing at a given time, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced on Tuesday.
The MI Safe Schools Return to School Roadmap resulted from the work of a 25-person appointed council of education and health practitioners and experts – including MEA President Paula Herbart and other MEA members – to provide minimum steps for districts to use in developing more detailed local plans.
“Nothing is more important than keeping our kids and our educators and all of their families safe,” Whitmer said at an afternoon press conference to release the 63-page plan.
Under the plan, districts must follow certain required protocols but will be allowed to consider whether “strongly recommended” and “recommended” actions are appropriate to local needs and circumstances, Whitmer said after warning: “This virus is very much alive in Michigan.”
The minimum steps outlined in the state plan provide a roadmap back to in-person learning, but things are not “returning to normal,” Herbart said at the press conference.
“It will not be perfect, and there will be curves in the road ahead,” Herbart said. “We owe our students—and the educators who serve them—the greatest measures of clarity and consistency we can manage in an unprecedented situation.”
Importantly – as has been the case throughout the pandemic’s course in Michigan – Whitmer has placed educators’ expertise and voices at the forefront of the state’s plans and responses, Herbart added.
“Educator voices were represented and heard on the Return to Learn Advisory Council—now we need to follow that example and ensure school employees are part of making important health and safety decisions at the local level, as called for in state collective bargaining law,” Herbart said.
The roadmap’s requirements vs. recommendations will ramp up or down in various regions depending on what safety status is in effect. Earlier this spring, the Whitmer administration adopted a six-phase distinction for reopening after statewide stay-at-home orders began to be relaxed in the wake of declining infections across Michigan.
Much of the state, except for the Upper Peninsula and Traverse City, remains in phase 4 of reopening, while Lansing has returned to phase 2 following a widely publicized outbreak at a local bar and Grand Rapids has returned to phase 3 after seeing case numbers rise precipitously.
Under phases 1-3, no in-person instruction will be allowed in a designated region.
Phase 4 allows in-person learning while requiring teachers and staff to wear masks at all times except during meals and requiring K-6 students to wear masks and socially distance, including in classrooms. Younger students would have to wear masks on buses and in hallways, but not in classrooms.
Examples of other phase 4 requirements include:
- All students would have to wear face masks in hallways and common areas and on buses. Every student would have to use hand sanitizer before getting on the bus.
- Schools would have to work with local health departments on screening protocols.
- No indoor assemblies with students from more than one classroom would be allowed.
- 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. Student desks must be wiped down with either an EPA-approved disinfectant or diluted bleach solution after every class period.
Strongly recommended phase 4 protocols include spacing student desks 6 feet apart and maintaining social distancing between students and teachers at all times; serving meals over staggered periods in classrooms or outdoors; and creating quarantine areas for students or staff who exhibit symptoms while at school.
The state plan represents minimum guidelines that many districts will no doubt go beyond, Herbart noted, but they are an important common starting point. “Going forward, we must be flexible and willing to respond to changing circumstances and evolving data,” she said.
Under the roadmap, athletics must follow MHSAA guidance now under development. Spectators at sporting events can be allowed provided facial coverings are worn and 6 feet of social distancing is observed at all times, among other requirements.
At the press conference, Whitmer encouraged MHSAA – the state body that governs high school athletics – to consider moving high-contact fall sports to spring and switching individualized sports – such as track and field – to the fall.
Our collective actions now will determine the future course of the pandemic in our state, she said, noting that her youngest daughter is slated to begin her senior year in the fall – following in the footsteps of her older sister whose graduation was disrupted by the pandemic this spring.
“I know firsthand that the last thing any parent wants is to cancel another round of graduations and milestones next spring,” Whitmer said in urging Michiganders to follow health guidelines for wearing masks and social distancing this summer and fall.
To help school districts weather the financial costs of coping with the COVID-19 pandemic, Whitmer and legislative leaders earlier announced a budget deal to avert massive school district cuts in the school year that just ended. More work remains to be done to close looming budget shortfalls for Fiscal Year 2021.
“We should be enhancing – not scaling back – our support for students and educators,” Herbart said. “To do that, I continue to urge the U.S. Senate to approve additional relief funding for schools in the HEROES Act so we can ensure safety and academic progress for our students next year.”