Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is asking for a two-week pause to in-person high school classes and youth sports as Michigan leads the nation in new daily cases of COVID-19.
“We all have to step up our game for the next two weeks to bring down rising cases,” Whitmer said during a Friday morning press conference.
Michigan’s daily case totals have shot up faster than any other state in recent weeks and are nearing the mark reached during the December spike, when most schools statewide opted to close their classrooms. In Wayne County, which includes Detroit, 18% of COVID-19 tests are coming back positive, well above the threshold for closure set by many districts. Several districts in the area had already announced plans to remain closed in coming weeks.
The closures will add to the emotional and academic toll students have borne throughout the pandemic. Virtual learning isn’t as effective as face-to-face instruction for most students.
Hours after Whitmer spoke, several districts announced that they would heed her call for a pause.
The Detroit Public Schools Community District said it would pause in-person instruction for three weeks, one week longer than previously announced.
Ferndale Superintendent Dania Bazzi said in a Facebook post Friday that the district would “honor the governors’ request and pause in-person learning and indoor sports.” The pause in the district only affects secondary schools. In-person learning resumes April 26, she said.
Other districts, though, said they had no intent to follow the governor’s request. Royal Oak Superintendent Mary Beth Fitzpatrick said high school sports and in-person learning would continue as scheduled.
“Our district, like many others, was surprised to hear this during a public press conference, without any direct prior notice to school leaders,” she said in a statement. “MDHHS and county health departments have the authority to mandate closures rather than putting these health-related decisions on school districts.”
Reopening decisions have been hotly contested in many school districts, as school officials scramble to balance the interests of families who are afraid to send their children to school face-to-face and those who strongly prefer it. While Whitmer’s administration can require classrooms to open or close, in recent months it has stuck to making recommendations.
That’s not fair to school leaders who aren’t trained in public health, said Mark Greathead, superintendent of Woodhaven-Brownstown Schools and president of the K-12 Alliance, an association of school districts.
He said Whitmer’s announcement “raised serious concerns about the rapid rise in COVID-19 numbers while leaving us to determine how to respond to that on behalf of our students’ health, a decision that I, as an educator, am neither qualified nor should be expected to make.”
Whitmer’s comments come after thousands of teachers from across the state signed a petition calling for a pause in face-to-face instruction.
Key education leaders echoed her call for a two-week pause.
“The skyrocketing caseloads among 10-to-19-year-olds threatens the health of individual students, their classmates, their families and their communities,” said Paula Herbart, president of the Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.
State Superintendent Michael Rice also asked school leaders to heed Whitmer’s request.
“Michigan educators, students, and families have risen to the challenge over the past year, and I am confident they will continue to do what is needed to help save lives as we keep fighting the pandemic.”
The Michigan Department of Education said in a press release Friday that it would provide an option to delay the administration of high school state exams, which were set to begin next week, for schools that pause in-person instruction.
Since January, there has been broad agreement among leaders in Michigan politics and education that schools should offer more in-person instruction. In recent weeks, the vast majority of students in the state had the chance to learn face to face.
Whitmer allowed high school sports to resume in February after parents strongly pushed her to do so. Public health experts say sports and other extracurriculars have contributed substantially to the spread of the virus among students.
“As a parent and former student-athlete myself, I understand how important athletics are to our children’s physical and mental health. However, parents and athletes need to understand the risk involved with youth sports if they choose to participate,” said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical executive in Michigan. “We’ve seen that the younger population has played a significant role in transmission during this most recent spike.”
One conservative group pushed back immediately on efforts to temporarily close classrooms.
“While students are locked out of classrooms, we’ve seen too many fall into a crisis of despair,” said Beth DeShone, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, a think tank connected to former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. “Our kids deserve better from Governor Whitmer and the public school bureaucracy. They deserve safely open classrooms.”
Whitmer urged citizens to get vaccinated as quickly as possible, noting that vaccines are the best way to prevent new cases of the coronavirus. Everyone in the state 16 or older is eligible to be vaccinated.
Classroom closures now will further raise the stakes of Michigan’s efforts to help students recover from the academic and emotional trial of the pandemic, said Amber Arellano, executive director of the Education Trust-Midwest, an education advocacy group. The state is set to receive billions in federal COVID funding, in part to support those efforts.
“Especially with the ongoing interruptions to learning, it’s essential for state leaders to plan now to address unfinished learning that will take several years, especially for students who have the most needs and have suffered the greatest impacts from the pandemic,” Arellano said. “That means targeting state and federal dollars to research-driven, solution-based strategies like intensive tutoring, and making sure dollars are geared in an equitable way to students and schools that need them most.”