Whitmer closes schools for 2019-20, districts to decide learning plans

Michigan becomes 10th state in the country to do so

Detroit Edison Public School Academy, Sept. 20, 2019 | Allison Donahue

In another action to slow the spread of COVID-19, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced Thursday that all school buildings will remain closed for the rest of the school year and is instructing school districts to draft plans and adjust to remote learning.

“My No. 1 priority right now is protecting Michigan families from the spread of COVID-19. 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,” Whitmer said.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signs an order closing Michigan schools for the year because of COVID-19 | Gov. Whitmer office photo

This didn’t come as a surprise, but anxious parents, teachers and students have been wondering how the closure will work in practice.

According to EdWeek, nine other states have also closed schools for the remainder of the school year: Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Vermont and Virginia.  

Initially, Whitmer issued Executive Order 2020-05 to close all schools — public, private and charter — from March 16 to April 5, and later extended the closure until April 13. However,  as the number of COVID-19 cases has sharply risen — there are almost 10,000 cases and more than 300 deaths — the governor ordered that reopening schools this school year would be a public health and safety risk.

Executive Order 2020-35, orders all K-12 school buildings to close, effective immediately, and remain closed until next school year, unless restrictions are lifted.

With more than 900 school districts in Michigan closing their doors and ending face-to-face instruction for the school year, more than 1.5 million students will be impacted by the decision, from shifting graduation requirements to adjusting special education programs. 

Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) said that the Senate Republican caucus worked closely with the governor in coming up with a plan to continue student learning while school buildings are closed.  

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey at the Mackinac Policy Conference, May 30, 2019 | Andrew Roth

“While none of us want to see our school buildings closed, we believe this comprehensive Order provides pathways to continue learning opportunities for Michigan students, under the current circumstances,” Shirkey said. 

The order also ensures that teachers and school employees will be paid for the remainder of the school year, student teachers will be able to get a temporary certification and current teachers will be able to get their certifications renewed. 

However, Whitmer said she understands that by closing schools for the last 30% of the school year, it presents unique challenges for each district, including access to broadband internet, devices and support for students with special needs.

“We recognize that districts do not have equitable access to all of these things and that’s why it’s not one size fits all,” Whitmer said. 

For that reason, she is turning to school superintendents, local intermediate school districts and charter school authorizers to take the lead on drafting plans that best meet the needs of their students. 

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By Friday, the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators and the Michigan Council of Charter School Authorizers will develop and distribute a model template for district plans. 

“We applaud the governor for her determination to protect students and families during this unprecedented time in our state’s history,” said Rob Kimball, chair of the Michigan Council of Charter School Authorizers. “The governor’s commitment to ensure all students — regardless of their socioeconomic status — have access to the tools they need to keep learning is especially inspiring.”

Intermediate districts and authorizing bodies must review districts’ plans beginning April 8, and districts must begin implementation no later than April 28.

“This is how we are empowering school districts,” Whitmer said. 

If a school district’s plan relies on online instruction, the governor said the district should ensure every student has access to an appropriate device with an ability to connect to the internet. 

3rd graders were supposed to be held back if they couldn’t read. Then COVID-19 hit.

“There is no video chat or homework packet that can replace the value of a highly trained, experienced teacher working with students in a classroom,” Whitmer said. “But we must continue to provide equitable educational opportunities for students during this public health crisis.” 

Senate Education Committee Vice Chair Dayna Polehanki (D-Livonia), a former teacher, said this extended closure will give schools and families time to “solidify plans for continuity of learning away from the classroom.”

American Federation of Teacher Michigan President David Hecker echoed support for Whitmer, saying she “made the right decision several weeks ago to close PreK-12 school buildings.”

“We fully support the governor’s Executive Order, which maintains the school building closure for this school year,” Hecker said. “This approach ensures students will still be engaged with learning opportunities, families will continue to receive meals, and all school staff will continue to receive pay and health care coverage.”

What teachers want students and parents to know during the COVID-19 school shutdown

Special needs students

Another concern with closing school doors for months is meeting the needs of students with individualized education programs (IEP).

In the executive order, districts are directed to provide equal access to alternative modes of instruction to students with disabilities, based upon existing resources, technology, training and curriculum.

Whitmer says this may require extra sessions and support following the state of emergency to make up for lost ground. 

“When this executive order expires, that is something that I think we will continue to work on,” she said. “Those services are not canceled; they may need to be delayed until we beat this virus, but we anticipate living up to the IEPs that our students rely on and that our families rely on, as well.”

It’s up to the districts to determine whether compensatory services may be needed for pupils after the school closure period ends. 

Schools also are encouraged to continue to provide mental health services for students and meals for families who need them during the COVID-19 crisis. 

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Students moving on after COVID-19

A large part of Whitmer’s decision was ensuring that this statewide closure wouldn’t stunt students’ learning growth or hold students back from moving to the next grade level. 

Through her executive order, districts are directed to implement a process to award credit and grades for courses taken based on their coursework through March 11. 

As for graduation, Whitmer — whose oldest daughter is a high school senior — said that it is her “personal intent to ensure” all eligible seniors will have the opportunity to graduate this school year. 

Districts must implement a process to award credits needed for graduation, provide for completion of the Michigan Merit Curriculum and issue their diplomas. 

If a senior was at-risk of failing prior to March 11, districts must provide the student an opportunity to demonstrate learning in the subject matter and receive credit for the course.

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“I know that there is a lot of anxiety about how we’re going to move forward and meet the needs of our kids. I feel it, too,” Whitmer said. “As a parent of two high schoolers, both of whom are going to miss out on prom this year and a senior who’s asking the same questions about graduation, we feel it in our own household.”

Looking ahead to next school year for 2020-21, the governor expects that there will be some new challenges and additional needs to address once school returns. 

Whitmer said she has been working with the legislature to start making plans for the “additional support we are going to need to give our students as we think about resuming in the fall.”

One of the ways she is doing this is by relaxing requirements for school districts to adopt a balanced calendar for the 2019-20 school year or begin the 2020-21 school year before Labor Day.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) supports the governor’s decision to extend the statewide school closure, and says it is a “necessary step to keep Michiganders as safe as possible and slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.”