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Whitmer cancels school for year

Executive order sets guidelines for remote learning

Bothwell Middle School in Marquette is pictured. On Thursday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer canceled school for the entire state because of the COVID-19 outbreak. (Journal file photo)

MARQUETTE — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Thursday signed Executive Order 2020-35, which orders all K-12 school buildings to close for the remainder of the school year — unless restrictions are lifted — and ensures continued learning by setting guidelines for remote learning. District facilities may be used by public school employees and contractors for the purposes of facilitating learning at a distance while also practicing social distancing.

“My number one priority right now is protecting Michigan families from the spread of COVID-19. For the sake of our students, their families, and the more than 100,000 teachers and staff in our state, I have made the difficult decision to close our school facilities for the remainder of the school year,” Whitmer said in a news release. “As a parent, I understand the challenge closing schools creates for parents and guardians across the state, which is why we are setting guidelines for schools to continue remote learning and ensuring parents have resources to continue their children’s education from the safety of their homes.

“There is no video chat or homework packet that can replace the value of a highly trained, experienced teacher working with students in a classroom, but we must continue to provide equitable educational opportunities for students during this public health crisis.”

The Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators and the Michigan Council of Charter School Authorizers are currently developing a Continuity of Learning Plan template application for schools to use to create their localized plans. The application was to be made available today. District plans will need to detail how districts will provide opportunities for students to learn remotely and how schools will manage and monitor their progress.

It will also provide information on how parents and guardians can learn more about the local plan. Each district must have its plan approved by its regional intermediate school district before being implemented. Public school academies must have their plans approved by their authorizers. Districts can also partner with one another to create joint plans.

Every district’s plan will be different and will reflect what’s best and feasible for their communities, the news release said. A plan can include learning by any number of modes of instruction delivery, including a hybrid approach. However they are designed, districts must ensure their plans are appropriate, equitable and accessible for students and families.

If the plan relies on some online instruction, the district should ensure every student who needs it has access to an appropriate device with an ability to connect to the internet. Students and families will not be penalized if they are unable to participate in their alternate learning plan.

Schools should continue to provide mental health care services for students, to the extent possible, and should be ready and willing to help efforts to establish disaster relief childcare centers. School districts will also continue to provide meals for families who need them during the COVID-19 crisis. If any schools have unused personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies or other materials, they are allowed and encouraged to donate them to organizations that could put them to use.

School districts will have the flexibility to adopt a balanced calendar for the 2019-2020 school year and/or to begin the 2020-2021 school year before Labor Day without having to seek additional approval. Teachers and school employees will be paid for the remainder of the school year. Student teachers will still be able to get a temporary certification and current teachers will still be able to get their certifications renewed, even if they can’t meet all the requirements due to COVID-19.

All Michigan high school seniors will be given the opportunity to graduate this year so that they may make a successful postsecondary transition, officials said.

Additionally, all standardized tests previously scheduled for the remainder of the school year, including the M-STEP and the SAT, will be canceled. There will be a date in October for rising high school seniors to take the SAT and for other high school students to take the PSAT.

The Michigan League for Public Policy’s Kids Count in Michigan Project shows that statewide, 87.7% of children up to age 17 live in homes with internet access. Kids’ internet access by county ranges between 85% and 96%, and is lowest in rural areas.

The Michigan High School Athletic Association issued a short statement Thursday afternoon saying it would announce by this afternoon what the status of the winter and spring high school sports seasons would be.

Area athletic directors like Terry Roberts of Ishpeming Public Schools don’t expect any more sports to be held this school year, but is waiting for direction from the MHSAA, which is made up of more than 1,500 public and private schools in the state.

“We’re reviewing the governor’s announcement, asking questions and will make a statement as we continue to digest this order,” MHSAA Executive Director Mark Uyl said.

About 10 days ago on March 24, the MHSAA announced that “activities in all sports for all seasons through April 13” would be suspended to fall in line with the governor’s “stay home, stay safe” order.

Back on March 12, the group suspended all its postseason tournaments “immediately and indefinitely,” while a day later it directed “all member schools to suspend activities in all sports in all seasons” from March 16 to April 5.

Local reaction

In keeping with Whitmer’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order, the school superintendents quoted in this article corresponded via email.

Bill Saunders, superintendent of Marquette Area Public Schools, said he is sure the news is devastating to many students and families.

“My heart goes out to all students and staff but especially for our seniors, athletes, scholarship recipients, and the many others who haven’t received the same recognition and fulfillment as has been tradition,” Saunders said.

However, he noted the COVID-19 pandemic is of greater concern.

“One of our primary functions is to ensure the health and safety of all students and families,” Saunders said. “I agree with the governor — this wouldn’t have been possible with a return to school.”

He also said he’s pleased with Whitmer clearing up some additional areas of concern, such as all school employees being compensated for the rest of the work year and that districts must develop an alternative learning plan, which MAPS will release soon.

Districts still have many questions as they move forward through these uncharted territories, but MAPS is committed to doing whatever it can to meet the needs of students and families, he said.

Rachel Pomeroy, co-president of MAPS’ teachers’ union, the Marquette Area Education Association, said in an email that the union supports Whitmer’s data-driven decision.

“Many teachers are finding themselves confronting realities they’d never imagined — caring for elderly relatives as well as their own children, worrying about spouses and loved ones who work on the front lines of health care and law enforcement, furloughed and newly unemployed spouses … the list goes on and on,” Pomeroy said.

She said teachers, in general, are task-oriented and the last two weeks of what she called limbo — not knowing what the rest of the school year would look like — has added to the stress.

However, Pomeroy said Whitmer’s decision gives teachers a way to put their talents to use by using distance learning in a way that’s holistic and feasible.

“We look forward to working innovatively and collaboratively with Mr. Saunders and administrators to find ways to help students and their families through this time,” she said. “This unique situation will require creativity and flexibility both for the remainder of this year and for next school year.”

She said the “incredibly talented teaching staff” brings an impressive array of skills and problem-solving power to the table.

“For the foreseeable future we will be conducting the business of education in ways we have never done before, but I’m confident these challenges will strengthen us as an organization,” Pomeroy said. “As always, we stand in solidarity and we hold on to the hope of brighter days ahead.”

The Education Foundation for Marquette Public Schools announced that the education awards earned through the application process completed before the physical school closures will be given. The foundation’s annual May event for the Marquette Senior High School Class of 2020, however, will look different than in previous years.

The foundation is partnering with local teachers and residents to develop an awards ceremony that celebrates the graduates’ achievement but still abides by Whitmer’s executive orders. Communication regarding the ceremony will be via school email accounts.

NICE Community Schools is also developing solutions.

“NICE Community Schools is working on a combination of distance learning online, television broadcasts of learning activities with our regional partners, and a potential optional summer school refresher program in August,” NCS Superintendent Bryan DeAugustine said. “We are still digesting the governor’s executive order. We will take good care of our students through these strange times and we will hit the ground running when we are able to return to our face-to-face activities.”

District staff, he said, had been working hard to “engineer” solutions.

The district also has reached out to Northern Michigan University and neighboring districts so they can work on the situation together, he said.

“Working as a team will help us take good care of all of our region’s students and provide useful solutions we can all share with one another,” DeAugustine said.

Gwinn Area Community Schools Superintendent Sandy Petrovich called the district “resilient and flexible.”

However, she said she is grateful that Whitmer made a decision so the district can move forward.

“We miss our students immensely as the connection between children and the educators in their lives are often as important as that between child and parent,” Petrovich said. “However, we continue to find ways to connect via ClassDojo, Zoom, Google Meet, etc., so we can still see their faces and give them virtual hugs.”

She anticipates the GACS plan to include online learning, printed materials and virtual instruction, although this is yet to be determined. It is hoped the plan will be in place by the end of next week with instruction starting soon after.

“I also appreciate the patience our parents have had in taking on the role of ‘school teacher’ these past weeks,” Petrovich said. “Parents should know there are many creative ways to be a ‘school teacher’ by doing mental math in adding up gallons of fuel at the pump, multiplying the number of spoons and forks at the dinner table, or reading a book together.

“Learning is all around us on a daily basis. For now, look for these opportunities in your daily life, and stay tuned as more information is coming soon.”

A Facebook video showed Negaunee Public Schools teachers saying they missed the students, who in turn made a video of their own saying they missed the teachers.

The videos probably were a much-needed emotional boost.

NPS Superintendent Dan Skewis said Whitmer’s decision is disappointing but was made for the right reason.

“Our primary goal during a school year is to keep our students safe,” Skewis said. “The closure follows this same mindset. We have a solid plan in place moving forward with distance learning. We realize there will be hurdles to overcome regarding internet access for students and staff, and addressing needs for some of our students, but our staff will do everything possible to work through these obstacles.

“I feel for our seniors, and we will work with them and their families to make this unfortunate situation into something they can remember in a positive way.”

Parents have to adapt as well.

Keith Glendon, a MAPS Board of Education trustee, has two school-age children who attend Superior Hills Elementary School and Bothwell Middle School, a pre-school child who stays at home and a Northern Michigan University student who has moved back into the family home after losing his job.

“We’re taking it one day at a time as a family, rolling with it as best we can – like pretty much everyone who isn’t a millionaire,” Glendon said via a social media post.

Christie Mastric can be reached at cbleck@miningjournal.net.

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