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Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued new guidance for schools and other organizations after the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in Michigan.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued new guidance for schools and other organizations after the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in Michigan.

State of MIchigan

Gov. Whitmer urges caution, not closure, for schools after first Michigan cases of COVID-19

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer urged Michigan schools to limit large gatherings of more than 100 people and consider staggering building schedules to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

State officials also say schools should provide online learning opportunities for students with severe illnesses.

Whitmer announced the guidance — which applies to K-12 schools and other organizations — during a Wednesday press conference a day after Michigan declared its first coronavirus cases shut down face-to-face classes and instead move all classes online, some for just a couple of weeks and others until the end of the semester.

“We’re going to have to make some tough decisions in the coming weeks,” said Whitmer, who declared a state of emergency Tuesday night.

On Wednesday, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. The novel coronavirus has infected more than 120,000 people worldwide and eight countries report more than 1,000 each.

Few details are known about the two Michigan residents who are in quarantine after testing positive for the coronavirus. One is a Wayne County resident who recently traveled domestically, while the other is an Oakland County resident who recently traveled internationally. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said during a news conference Wednesday evening that there have been no cases in the city.

But as every public university in the state moved to cancel in-person classes, a different story emerged from the state’s K-12 schools. Most are staying open, but officials are taking more precautions as they try to calm fears.

In the Detroit Public Schools Community District, “we are not in a position or need to cancel school at this time,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said in a letter to staff.

The district has, however, canceled all student study abroad trips for the spring and summer, and stepped up its efforts to clean schools.

“We have directed all custodial teams to expand cleaning and disinfection work to include frequently touched surfaces, such as door knobs, handles, and light switches daily,” Vitti said. 

Michigan likely won’t see many K-12 districts following the state’s 15 public universities, all of which said Wednesday that they’re shutting down in-person classes. 

Vitti said online learning for the Detroit district “is not an at scale option for the vast majority of our students and families,” he said.

A U.S. Census report from 2017 found that just 67.5% of Detroit households had broadband internet, the lowest rate among 25 large U.S. cities. 

Some rural areas of the state are in much worse shape when it comes to online access. Chris Wigent, executive director of the Michigan Association of Superintendents & Administrators, said that in one Upper Peninsula county, at least 50% of the families don’t have internet access.

“From the Upper Peninsula to southeast Michigan, there are a lot of varying connection problems. It just makes (online learning)  impossible to implement the way this current system is set up.”

Still, he said, the moves taken by the universities are worth paying attention to.

“We are watching what’s going on with the colleges and universities very closely,” he said. “We don’t know how that impacts our districts. But certainly, that is of interest to us.”

Wigent said he’s encouraging local school districts to continue communicating with their health departments to determine next steps.

“They are the experts. We really need to lean on them.”

“The number one issue is the safety of the students and the safety of the staff,” said David Hecker, president of the American Federation of Teachers-Michigan, a statewide teachers union. “We have to consider that in the context of not panicking and making thoughtful decisions.”

He’s advised his local unions to sit down with administrators to hash out plans for what to do if coronavirus impacts their schools. 

At Detroit Collegiate High School, a charter school on the city’s east side, administrators are following guidance from the state, county, and intermediate school district. There are no plans to close schools or discontinue participating in sporting events, said Michille Roper-Few, the school’s principal. 

After Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Tuesday night announcement, Equity Education, the charter school’s management company, sent letters to parents on additional safety measures . 

Roper-Few said she held an assembly this morning informing students to take proactive steps to stay safe, such as washing hands more frequently. 

“We didn’t want to have a panic, but this is real. This could be from anywhere. It’s not a game,” she said.

In his email to staff, Vitti said Whitmer’s declaration of a state of emergency wasn’t done “to create fear or panic but to ensure that local health authorities and health care providers receive the resources and assistance needed to address the virus through state and federal funding.”

He said the district has no plans to discontinue participation in sports and academic tournaments and extracurricular activities.

For more on the state’s official guidance, read below: