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Can Michigan schools reopen for in-person instruction in the fall? There’s no quick answer.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, shown during an April press conference, said a decision that will affect whether schools can provide in-person instruction won’t come soon.
State of Michigan

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said a decision about whether it’ll be safe to return to school likely will come down to the wire, suggesting schools might not know if they can provide in-person instruction until shortly before the official Sept. 8 start date.

“So, you’re going to know before we get to that first day,” Whitmer said during a press conference Tuesday. “But it’s going to be a lot closer to it than anyone’s going to be happy with and that’s just the nature of this disease.”

Whitmer has been clear for weeks that rising COVID-19 cases across the state could impact whether Michigan is in a position to allow students to return to the classroom. Already, school districts in Ann Arbor, Lansing, and Grand Rapids have decided to begin the year with virtual classes. Many other districts are planning to provide parents with the option of virtual lessons or in-person classes.

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive, reported Tuesday that the number of new cases is plateauing statewide. But she identified several areas, including the Detroit region, as problematic because their increases continue to be above where they need to be.

Whether students can return to school buildings at the beginning of the year will depend on what phase the state is in its efforts to reopen the economy. Those phases, outlined in the state’s Safe Start plan, are broken down based on COVID-19 data, specifically increases in the number of positive cases and hospitalizations. Currently, most of the state is in phase four, which allows in-person instruction to take place. That is not allowed in phase three, and that’s where Michigan could be in September if positive cases continue to increase.

Whitmer, asked when the state could make a decision, said “we all have to remain nimble.”

But the closer that decision comes to the beginning of the year will mean more angst, particularly for schools and districts that hoped to begin the year in August, and also for parents, teachers, and school administrators.

Once officials determine what phase the various regions of the state are in, it’ll be up to individual districts to decide how best to provide instruction, Whitmer said.

“We can’t dictate precisely what a day looks like.”

Legislation currently being debated would require schools begin the year with face-to-face instruction for students in grades K-5. Whitmer said science should drive those decisions.

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