The beginning of the school year is almost here in Michigan. But who gets to go back to school and when, isn't clear. Lawmakers are set to make their recommendation this weekend in a rare Saturday session of the Michigan legislature.
“Return To Learn” is a package of four GOP-sponsored bills that narrowly passed the Michigan House in July. The bills address how kids will learn remotely and how their progress will be measured with things like attendance requirements and benchmark exams.
There’s also a measure that requires school districts to provide the option of offering in-person instruction for students in grades K-5.
That’s part of State Representative Andrea Schroeder’s bill.
“I have yet to meet a teacher who doesn't want to be back in the classroom,” Schroeder says.
Schroeder (R-Independence Twp) is a former kindergarten teacher. She cites guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the CDC that she says makes a strong case for beginning the school year with open doors.
“Instead of saying, starting from zero do we open or do we close, let’s start at opening and then work our way into where being open is not safe,” she says.
Some Michigan school districts aren’t taking the risk. They’ve already decided to start their academic year online. Many are taking a wait-and-see approach, scheduling virtual learning for the first month or two and then plotting their next moves.
The Michigan Education Association is the state’s largest teachers’ union. President Paula Herbart says MEA obviously wants a safe return to school. But she says the bills don’t give districts enough autonomy to make their own decisions on the ground.
“If we return carte blanche under the CDC guidelines without giving the locals the ability to influence how they return and when they return, then we could be risking a population of people in just a single day,” Herbart explains.
In June, the state published The Michigan Safe Schools Roadmap, a re-entry strategy outlining safety protocols across six phases of the pandemic. Under the plan, students in grades K-5 would not be required to wear face masks if they stayed in their own classrooms and didn’t come into contact with students in another class.
That’s left many teachers wondering why.
In July, the MEA co-sponsored a telephone town hall to hear from teachers, some of whom may be on the front lines in a matter of weeks.
Amanda Feltner teaches Spanish in the Michigan Center Public Schools. She says there’s a huge difference between “strongly recommended” and “required.” Feltner currently has a high-risk pregnancy…and she didn’t mince words with state health officials when it was her turn to speak.
“I could die,” Feltner says. “I could have lifelong complications. My unborn child is put at risk. Why is there not a requirement in K-12 for masks? You are not protecting me.”
Her comments drew a long pause. Finally, Michigan chief medical executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun stepped up to answer.
“Again, there are multiple things that went into play when it came to developing this road map,” says Khaldun. “I believe that speaking to your union leadership and your district leadership is going to be incredibly important.”
The advisory council that helped write the Safe Schools Roadmap steered away from mandating masks in K-5. That was largely out of concerns that younger children might not have the self-control to avoid pulling them off or even chew them.
“If children can wear them appropriately, it absolutely is protective and is recommended,” says pediatrician Dr. Gwendolyn Reyes. “The challenge with our younger children is, can they do that safely?”
Reyes is a member of the advisory council. She knows children can and do contract COVID-19. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports the U.S. saw a spike of more than 97,000 new cases among children in July alone.
What’s less well known, Reyes says, is how capable kids under age 10 are of transmitting the virus.
“The question is, if they have those high loads of virus, how likely are they to infect others?” she says. “And that's the area that we really don't have enough data on to say, yes, the virus is there, but are those young kids likely to pass it on to others?”
Michigan lawmakers now face the hurdle of clearing an education package that Governor Gretchen Whitmer is willing to sign.
There’s a lot on the line this school year.
“Nobody is making this decision lightly,” says Rep. Schroeder. “Parents, teachers and legislators are up at night fretting about this and trying to make the right decision.”