LANSING — What was speculated earlier in the week is now official — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive order Thursday suspending face-to-face learning at K-12 schools for the remainder of the current academic school year.
That means more than 1.5 million Michigan students will not return to their school buildings for the rest of the academic year due to the coronavirus pandemic and instead will learn remotely. All public and private schools are more than halfway through a four-week shutdown ordered by Whitmer to combat the outbreak.
She said face-to-face instruction will not resume this spring. Districts will create distance learning programs, with flexibility on how they do so — whether it is online or with printed materials sent to homes or some other option.
Seniors will graduate and other children will advance to the next grade, as long as they were on track to do so before the closure. Whitmer also said it was a "difficult decision," but her No. 1 priority is protecting against the spread of COVID-19.
There is, however, a caveat to Executive Order 2020-35. Students could return to schools this academic year, but only if restrictions are lifted soon. The order also allows for district facilities to be used by public school employees and contractors to facilitate learning at a distance while also practicing social distancing.
"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," Whitmer said in a statement issued before a scheduled press conference.
"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, but we must continue to provide equitable educational opportunities for students during this public health crisis."
Traditional districts and charter schools will get their full state funding because the state will forgive instruction time requirements and waive a 75% attendance rule. Students will not be penalized if they are unable to participate in an alternate learning plan.
On Thursday, Cadillac resident Darlene Merritt responded to a post on the Cadillac News Facebook page about the closure saying it had to happen. She also said in today's world there are many opportunities for extended learning. It also will take a proactive approach by educators that will include calling, video chats and instruction supplemented with paper and pencil back up. Most importantly, Merritt said it can be done to keep students advancing through their education.
Parent Jewel LouAllen responded on Facebook saying the closure will allow her to protect her children. Kimberly Lutz said she has two boys and with the closure official, she would like to see schools send home some sort of curriculum for the parents to finish out the school year.
Cadillac Area Public Schools sent emails and text messages to district families Thursday shortly after the announcement was made by Whitmer. The message stated the district understands the hardship the closure places on families and the social and emotional impact it may have on students. They also are aware Thursday's announcement raises a lot of questions.
The district said it is working on finding answers and would provide additional information in the coming days. While there are many unknowns, additional information was shared via the district's website.
Despite the closure CAPS students will continue to learn, but it will look different. Making the shift to digital instruction will take time and require all stakeholders to be patient and flexible. CAPS Superintendent Jennifer Brown said staff has been working on a plan since Whitmer first closed schools last month. The plan, which is being called a Continuous Learning Plan, will support all students.
Resources related to the Continuous Learning Plan will be posted at www.cadillacschools.org soon. The district also will provide a paper-pencil option for students and families without access to the internet.
"We will be prepared with learning plans for next week which will be enrichment and review. Those details (for next week) will be released on Monday. We also are looking at some parent supports," Brown said. "We will be spending next week planning what education will look like based on the state guidelines that are anticipated to be released (Friday)."
Brown met with teaching staff Thursday and she said they were resilient, positive but anxious about how they are going to meet student needs academically but also socially and emotionally.
With roughly 90% of the district's population responding, Brown said she is confident the data showing 20% lacked internet access while 40% were without a device is accurate. That said, the district is trying to reach the final 10%. With that data, Brown said it is obvious CAPS will have to have a paper and pencil option for students.
"I can't imagine there is a school district in our area that won't have a blended plan," she said.
She said the district is looking at offering three different plans for families with access to internet and technology, families with limited access and families with no access. The goal is to have the plan in place, approved by the Wexford-Missaukee Intermediate School District and ready to implement by April 13.
CAPS also said seniors who were on track to graduate will graduate. The district is looking at alternative graduation dates and options if the stay safe, stay home is extended. Students who were going to be promoted to the next grade will be promoted. The district also recognizes there will be learning gaps and challenges with the amount of instructional time lost.
Brown said because this was abrupt and sudden, the district is not canceling events such as prom or graduation. She said it is important that the district doesn't leave students without closure but it is especially important for the current senior class.
"If it is early or late summer or whenever it is allowed, we are looking to plan closure activities for all students," she said.
CAPS also is in the middle of construction projects and Whitmer's order didn't shed light on if that could continue. For that reason, the will be looking for clarification. She also said they are still ahead of schedule, but it is only a matter of time before construction starts to get behind schedule.
"Basically, we will need to know if K-12 construction is going to be deemed critical by May 1 to ensure there are no significant delays," Brown said.
Pine River Area Schools Superintendent Matt Lukshaitis said he spent most of the morning and early afternoon Thursday trying to digest Whitmer's executive order. He said when he meets with his administrators, various things will be addressed including how learning will be done at each building, how the district will meet the needs of special education students as well as how the district will take care of the Class of 2020.
Lukshaitis said he was not surprised by Whitmer's order given the complexity of the situation and the goal will be to empower each building administrator and teaching staff to do what needs to be done to reach as many students with learning opportunities as possible.
He said with 45% of the students at Pine River having internet connectivity, whatever plan the district comes up with will have to be constructed to further education while not penalizing those who don't have the internet.
The district previously implemented a plan where every student, grades 6-12, had access to a laptop, Lukshaitis said that doesn't mean all those students are utilizing them.
"Not every parent allowed it. We had a percentage of parents who didn't want them in their homes for different reasons including they don't have the internet at home," he said.
For Reed City, interim superintendent Dean McGuire said he is looking at a long list of things to do before submitting a plan to the Mecosta-Osceola ISD.
"Right now we are trying to coordinate with the ISD and answer a lot of questions like how do we reach students who don't have internet access, how do we meet the needs of special education students or how do we support our teachers through this," he said.
Having until April 28 to have a plan in place, McGuire said he is making sure the schools are doing what is best for the students.
"It gives us time to plan," he said. "(...) There is a lot to digest right now. After my meeting with the ISD and other superintendents, I am looking at a list with 24 items needing to be addressed."
But despite the hurdles the schools are facing with internet access, coordinating lessons and making sure everyone is on the same page, McGuire said he is confident in his staff's ability to get through this.
"Looking at everything, I am still very confident we will get through this," he said.
When it comes to the roles ISDs play, Wexford-Missaukee ISD Superintendent Dave Cox said samples of potential district plans will be released Friday and once released locals can start using them to base their plans on. He also said they can start submitting them on April 10.
When it comes to special education, Cox said it will be a case-by-case scenarios for fulfilling the IEPs. He said some will be relatively easy to accomplish while others will be more difficult to achieve and may need educators to think outside the box. Others might not happen until it is safe for people to be face to face.
"Some might not happen so they will be compensatory service, basically they will make up what they didn't receive," Cox said. "That is not mandated but it is something we will do. We will try to reach all kids, but we will make sure we do the right thing for students."
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.