Gov. Gretchen Whitmer released guidelines Tuesday for how Michigan’s K-12 schools should reopen in the fall and said her administration would provide $256 million to help districts implement their local plans.

Whitmer’s latest executive order requires school districts to adopt a COVID-19 Preparedness and Response Plan laying out how they will protect students and educators across the various phases of the Michigan Safe Start Plan. The order makes clear that schools will be shut to most visitors and will be restricted to essential personnel for teaching and feeding students.

Whitmer’s plan also suggests that athletics and extracurricular activities will not be offered in the fall. It said private and public schools must develop reopening plans that “suspend athletics, after-school activities, inter-school activities (e.g., debate competitions) and busing.” 

“Our students, parents, and educators have made incredible sacrifices during our battle with COVID-19,” the governor said in a statement. “Thanks to our aggressive action against this virus, the teachers who have found creative ways to reach their students, and the heroes on the front lines, I am optimistic that we will return to in-person learning in the fall.”

Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun said the most important thing the state can do as it prepares to reopen school buildings in the fall is closely examine the data and remain vigilant in its steps to fight this virus.

The announcement came as a University of Michigan survey found one-third of Michigan parents may not send their children to public school this fall due to COVID-19 concerns.

The survey, which assessed parental plans for in-person school in Michigan, Ohio and Illinois, found health-related concerns were among the most common reasons cited by parents who did not plan to send their child. They also had concerns about too many restrictions that young children would not understand, according to UM researchers.

The online survey, published Friday by UM’s Susan B. Meister Child Health Evaluation and Research Center, queried 1,193 parents of school-aged children in the three states June 12-22.

In Michigan, 66.7% of those surveyed said they likely planned to send their children to school this fall, 12.4% said they likely would not send them and 20% said they were unsure of their plans.

Of those parents who said they were unsure, many said they were waiting to see how the COVID-19 pandemic evolved and others said they were waiting to hear about their schools’ plans for safety measures.

Families are facing a challenging decision regarding whether to send their children to school for in-person classes in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, said survey lead author Dr. Kao-Ping Chua, a pediatrician and researcher at Michigan Medicine C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.

“On the one hand, sending children to school could increase the risk of COVID-19 among children and family members,” Chua said. “On the other hand, children who don’t return to in-person school may experience disruptions in their education. Some families simply don’t have a choice because they need to go to work.”

A disparity in household incomes raises the possibility of potential educational disruption among less advantaged students, he said.

“Efforts should especially be made to understand and address barriers to school attendance for these students, and to ensure high-quality education for students who do not attend school in-person,” Chua said.

Most parents in the survey supported certain safety measures, including decreasing the number of children on buses, daily temperature screens for students, alternating between in-person and online classes, regular testing of school staff, and requiring school staff and older children to wear masks.

The survey also found:

• Parents from low-income households were the least likely to report that they will send all of their children to school, with 40% reporting that they are unsure of their plans or are not planning on sending at least one of their children.

• Black, Hispanic or Asian respondents were less likely to report that they will send all of their children to school compared with white respondents. 

• Most parents supported requiring face masks for school staff and middle and high school students, but were less likely to support requiring face masks for younger children.

• Three-quarters of parents supported daily temperature screens of students and requiring testing of children if a classmate tests positive for COVID-19. Support was low for closing playground structures and stopping all extracurricular programs.

The online survey was funded by the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation. Participants were compensated for their time and selected from an existing online panel assembled by Qualtrics, an online polling firm.

Parent Janis King says she remains unsure of whether she will send her three children to school this fall. Online learning at home this spring, when schools were closed statewide due to the coronavirus, was a struggle for her children who attend Berkley Schools.

“I will have to make a decision as things progress and get closer to the time that school will start,” King said. “It’s a concern if the number of COVID cases increases or declines now that people are out and about and being less cautious.”

Huntington Woods parent Joyce Krom says she is confident in sending her ninth grader back this fall because the district has multiple contingency plans that allow for in-person learning, at-home virtual learning or a hybrid model.

“And the kids are already spending a lot of time together,” Krom said.

The survey results come as school officials fear a loss of students returning would trigger a loss in state aid since they wouldn’t be counted in the classroom.

Several education organizations asked state lawmakers last Thursday to use pupil membership counts from the previous fiscal year for the new school year, in 2020-21, if those numbers are higher.

“Michigan needs to change the way we calculate pupil counts to provide budget certainty for districts,” according to the letter from the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators, the Michigan Association of School Boards, the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals and other organizations.

“By the time we reach pupil count day in October, classrooms may look very different, but the decisions about how to staff those classrooms will have been made months ago,” the letter said. “And schools will be expected to provide the same level of services as prior years. Local district funding should not be reduced because of changes in pupil enrollment due to COVID-19.”

The group also asked lawmakers to revise state law to remove the 75% attendance threshold under which districts must meet daily to receive state aid.

Last week, Republican lawmakers proposed a reopening plan for schools that would require in-person learning for younger students to begin this fall and would spend $1.3 billion supporting education during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Under the GOP legislators’ “Return to Learn” plan, schools would be able to develop “flexible learning plans” for the upcoming school year, according to a one-page description of the proposal. But schools would have to “at a minimum” require in-person instruction for students in kindergarten through the fifth grade, according to the document.

Steve Matthews, superintendent of Novi Community Schools in Oakland County, said a parent survey done in his district found 87% were ready to send their children this fall back to school.

Of the 13% who did not want to send their child back to school, Matthews said some parents have a health-comprised child while others said they were nervous about having their child exposed to the virus.

Matthews said he is working a more meaningful online experience for students at home that will count from a funding perspective, whether state laws are revised or pupil count numbers are used from last year.

He, like other superintendents, is eagerly awaiting Whitmer’s plan.

“We are really hopeful she provides some substance,” Matthews said. “The plan released by the Republicans says it’s up to local districts to work with health departments. That creates issues in my mind. If one says wear masks and another says no, it will create a lot of unnecessary drama.”

“We need a rule for the state of Michigan rather than a hodgepodge of rules, or we could do regional,” Matthews said. “Otherwise It will pit district against district.” 

jchambers@detroitnews.com

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