Michigan Gov. Whitmer closes K-12 schools for the rest of the school year

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer suspended face-to-face learning for the state’s 1.5 million students Thursday, closing all K-12 buildings for the rest of the school year.

Whitmer signed an executive order to close all K-12 school buildings -— unless restrictions are lifted — and for districts to create plans for remote learning at home.

“My number one priority right now is protecting Michigan families from the spread of COVID-19,” Whitmer said. “For the sake of our students, their families and the more than 100,000 teachers and staff in our state, I have made the difficult decision to close our school facilities for the remainder of the school year.”

“As a parent, I understand the challenge closing schools creates for parents and guardians across the state, which is why we are setting guidelines for schools to continue remote learning and ensuring parents have resources to continue their children’s education from the safety of their homes,” she said.

If a remote learning plan relies on online instruction, Whitmer said districts should ensure every student who needs it has access to a device and the internet. An estimated 500,000 students in Michigan don’t have a connection or a device or both, education officials have said.

Remote learning plans must detail how districts will manage and monitor student progress, she said.

The Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators and the Michigan Council of Charter School Authorizers are developing a “Continuity of Learning Plan” template application for schools to use to create localized plans, Whitmer said.

 All districts must have their plan approved by their regional intermediate school district before implementing it.

Public school academies must have their plans approved by their authorizer and districts can also partner with one another to create joint plans, according to Whitmer.

All Michigan high school seniors will be given the opportunity to graduate this year, the governor said.

All standardized tests scheduled for the remainder of the school year, including the M-STEP and the SAT, will be canceled, Whitmer said. High school seniors will be able to take the SAT and other high school students can take the PSAT at dates to be determined in October.

Whitmer said school districts will have the option to adopt a balanced calendar for the current school year and/or begin the 2020-21 school year before Labor Day without getting additional approval.

Reaction to Whitmer’s announcement was swift.

The Senate GOP caucus provided input to the governor on the plan and saw that input “reflected in the details” of the executive order, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey said in a statement.

“Teachers and staff have done a tremendous job providing continuous learning to students over the past couple weeks and we know that effort can continue,” Shirkey said. “Teachers and families partnering together will provide Michigan students with distance learning opportunities for the balance of the school year.”

Leaders from the Tri-County Alliance for Public Education said Whitmer’s decision will be challenging for students and educators, but is ultimately the right way to proceed for the health and safety of Michigan’s students.

“Keeping kids out of crowded classrooms during this pandemic keeps them safe, and, while that decision creates significant challenges for us as educators, it’s unquestionably the right thing to do. We appreciate and support the governor in making this difficult decision,” said Kenneth Gutman, superintendent of Walled Lake Schools, said.

Educators said the guidance Whitmer provided with her order to suspend various testing and reporting requirements, along with ensuring districts have the flexibility to deliver remote learning programs, will give schools the path forward they need.

“We appreciate Governor Whitmer providing schools with the necessary guidance that will help us give our students every opportunity possible to continue learning and growing during this unprecedented disruption in their lives,” said Eve Kaltz, TCA vice president and superintendent of Center Line Public Schools. “As difficult a challenge as this will be for educators, it’s going to be an even bigger challenge for our students and the governor’s action today best helps us to provide them the certainty they both need and deserve.”

On March 12, Whitmer shuttered K-12 schools through April 5. Last week, she amended the K-12 school closure to run through April 12, when she placed Michigan in a stay-at-home order that continues through April 13.

In Michigan, students typically attend school through mid-June and districts are required to have 180 days or 1,098 hours of instruction.

Eliza Parkinson, president of the Utica Education Association, said Thursday that her teachers want to know what is expected of them during the next three months.

“Teachers are high achievers and they are dedicated and they want to make sure they are doing what is expected of them at the highest level,” Parkinson said. “The uncertainty of not knowing is weighing heavily on them.

“We have to make sure we’ve engaged every student,” Parkinson said. “We can’t do new material yet until we guarantee all of our kids are engaged.”

Okemos superintendent John Hood said his district has been preparing for weeks for the reality of students not returning this school year.

“Serious equity issues need to be addressed. Not just internet, but that all kids have access to the content we’re providing and our teachers have the skills to provide content,” Hood said. “We believe kids in front of our faces are the best way to provide instruction. This is a big shift for us.”

Okemos schools will be designating a “master teacher” to coordinate with all other teachers in that grade to provide consistent at home instruction for the rest of the school year.

Families need support during the next few months, Hood said.

“We are also hearing that our families are overwhelmed right now,” he said. “They want the education to continue but we have families who are unemployed, worried about their next paycheck or meal. We have families working from home. Circumstances are so different.”

Hood said he has 40 to 50 families who need a computer for their child to do school work. Those were delivered last week but he expects the number to increase.

“The equity issues run in districts and between districts. We need to think about whether we are meeting the needs of all students.”

Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Community District, the state’s largest school system, praised Whitmer’s decision.

Vitti said his district has been developing a new learning framework that will offer opportunities for preK-12 students in core subjects, gym and art. The district will release the platform April 14 and plans to provide all students with a tablet and internet access next month.

“All of our school level staff will have specific roles and responsibilities to engage students and families during the closure through phone calls and the virtual platform of ‘Teams,'” Vitti said.

“We will focus on students’ learning and their social emotional needs during these difficult times as well. All of the assignments will be printed as well to address the city’s digital divide. We are actively working with the business community to implement a strategy to provide all DPSCD families with a tablet and internet access. Our goal is to execute this commitment by early/late May,” Vitti said.

Meagan Vanover, a public school teacher and a parent of two school-age children, said she was not shocked about Whitmer’s decision. She was shocked it took so long.

Vanover said her 7th and 10th grade children have adjusted well to online learning at home and continue to do homework assignments in the third-week of the school shutdown.

““I have expected this all along,” she said. “I am emotionally sad for them. I am in a grieving process, for their loss of sports. I feel bad for current seniors and their loss. That’s a hard reality to lose that.”

Vanover, who teaches at New Haven Elementary School, said she has lot of questions for Whitmer about the students she teaches.

“As a teacher, I know that nothing that has come home is actually required. We can’t assign work to these kids because you don’t know the situation at home. You don’t know if they have internet,” Vanover said.

What happens when food runs out at school, she asked.

“How are these children at home able to keep up, get food, when their parents are going back to work?” Vanover said. “What will achievement gaps look like in the future if every district is doing something different? I have teacher friends and everyone is doing something different. Not one of us is doing the same thing.”

Vanover also wants to know who and what will determine whether students are on track to be promoted.

“That is a real concern for me. We were coming into last trimester of the year … I’m not sure what percentage of our kids were at risk and how you can take that info and assume there is not an improvement? Are teachers going to be asked to made judgment calls for all their students?”

The Education Trust-Midwest, a Royal Oak-based think tank, acknowledged Whitmer’s “difficult decision” to close school buildings for the remainder of the school year and said policymakers must focus on assuring students can continue learning through remote means, especially in the state’s poorer districts.

“Michigan’s leaders — including policymakers and school leaders — must swiftly develop and invest in a comprehensive educational strategy to address COVID-19’s disruption to teaching and learning,” said Amber Arellano, executive director.

On March 20, the Michigan Department of Education issued a memo that said online school work done at home will not be counted toward a state requirement that districts offer 1,098 hours or 180 days of instruction per school year.

State school board president Casandra Ulbrich told The News last week the decision was made due to the inequities between districts in their ability to deliver online education.

Parent Joyce Krom said Whitmer’s decision to close school for the rest of the year has left her feeling apprehensive about her children’s educational future. Krom has an 8th grader and a 12th grader in Berkley Public Schools.

“Both of my kids have learning disabilities and are struggling significantly with distance learning,” Krom said. “The district is saying the work is enrichment and it won’t be graded, so don’t worry. At what point will this missed learning take place?”

Krom said she has been sitting next to her 8th grade daughter while she does her schoolwork at home because that is what is needed for her.

Krom, who has been laid off as a librarian, said if she gets called back to work she does not know how her young daughter will be able to complete school work entirely on her own.

“I hesitate to get too deep into homeschooling my kids only to pull the rug out from underneath them,” Krom said. “I don’t feel equipped to home school my kids if it’s actually going to count.”