As we hit month five of a global pandemic that has changed our lives and created new societal norms like mask-wearing and social distancing, many of us are looking towards the start of the new school year with anticipation, fear, confusion and hope. In July, the Governor released the Michigan Safe Schools Roadmap, which sets the guidelines for the safe reopening of schools. The Roadmap is aligned with the already-established Michigan Safe Start Plan which categorizes geographic regions of the state in phases 1 (most restrictive) to 6 (post-pandemic), depending on the spread of the virus. In general, schools in regions that are in phase 4 or higher can operate in person, provided that certain mandates are followed. Schools located in regions in phase 3 or below are not able to operate in person and must provide virtual education for their students. These rules apply to all public and private schools in the state.
There is no centralized, state-wide control on whether every school reopens for in-person instruction or not in Michigan. The Governor’s Roadmap has mandates that every district must follow, depending on which phase a region is in, but allows each district the option to devise plans that best fit their community. Each district is obligated to have a plan that is approved by their school board posted to their website 10 days before the first day of school or by August 17, whichever comes first. While there are certain things required of all schools, individual districts have the option to choose whether to operate virtually or in-person while in phases 4 and 5 and to determine what student schedules look like. Many districts are conducting surveys, holding virtual parent town hall meetings and using other local data to get input and drive decision-making. Neighboring districts may have different plans. And as stipulated in the Safe Start Plan, different regions will be in different places; while the UP may be in phase 5, the metro Detroit region could be in phase 2. It’s important to know in which region your district is located and to stay aware of how your region is This map shows each region and its current risk level, a determination made based on case data, death totals and testing data.
Just because a school can offer in-person instruction does not mean it has to offer it. While many districts are currently offering choices to parents, many may end up choosing to begin the year virtually for at least the first marking period, or roughly the first nine weeks of the school year, through the first week of November. There are many reasons for this possibility:
- There is uncertainty about how and when regions will move between phases. It is very difficult to know what phase a given region may be in on the first day of school and it is highly likely that regions may move between phases, especially in the fall. Many schools anticipate beginning the year with their regions in phase 4 or above but later falling back, in which case the schools will have to pivot to virtual learning, especially since a surge in virus spread has already been predicted for late fall. Districts across the state are determining that it may be better to start in a virtual setting for the sake of better planning and continuity.
- Schools have to follow very stringent health and safety protocols to offer in-person education. These protocols require compliance and collaboration to implement. Examples include ensuring all teachers in all grades and students grades 6-12 wear masks at all times, conducting health screenings following local health department protocols, ensuring that class sizes are not too large and maintaining a safe distance between students. Local health departments are also responsible for assisting districts with attaining PPE and other needed materials; a supply chain gap may make it difficult to provide each district with what is needed. In general, there are a lot of logistics to be worked out in a very short period with a limited number of people to execute them. The time and effort needed to put all of those logistics together may be better spent on developing teachers and finding resources to improve virtual teaching and learning, especially given that regions may change phases.
- Teachers have been expressing their concerns about returning to work in person and putting their health at risk. While many of us think about school from a student and family service perspective, it is important to recognize that schools are workplaces for teachers, administrators and school employees. In general, the teaching population is sort of split. There are many younger teachers, some of whom are opting to take the year off to pursue graduate studies or other opportunities, and a large number of older teachers, who are at higher risk for illness themselves and may opt to retire early. In both cases, an already small population of teachers is getting smaller. As we get closer to the start of school, teachers’ concerns will become more amplified and there may not be enough teachers — or substitutes — to staff in-person classrooms.
- Parent preferences change almost daily as new information is learned and as we get closer to the start of school. This behavior is perfectly normal and expected. As more information is shared and as parents get closer to actually having to send (or not send) their child to school, parents may second guess themselves. Every survey I have seen shows roughly a 50-50 split in parent preference between in-person and virtual education, and many parents are not entirely confident in their desire. As a result, schools may plan for one number of students to show up in-person on the first day but see a drastically different number of students. Whether there are more or fewer, either situation presents logistical concerns that are hard to navigate.
There has never been a greater need for parent support of daily school operations. Whether it’s sharing your expertise and offering to review protocols, donating PPE items or volunteering to be outside to help traffic flow, you may be able to provide the school with needed resources. Ask your school principal or another designee how you can help. Even if there is no way for you to help, simply asking can be a show of support at a time when schools are feeling overwhelmed.
You can also prepare your children for a new normal by normalizing the new experiences. If they are returning to school and have to wear masks, have them practice doing everyday activities while wearing masks, and keep a plan in place to provide them with a new disposable mask each day or to wash their masks daily. If they are going to be in a virtual environment, make sure they have whatever they need to be successful: headphones, speakers, proper lighting, etc. The more we can prepare our children to meet this experience with a positive, confident attitude, the better they will be set up for success.
Above all, parents need to be open, flexible, and ready for anything. It is a lot to ask, but at this point, there are no certainties. Districts are working as hard as they can to provide what they believe to be the best options for students, balancing all of the stakeholder concerns and the uncertainty of the situation. Prepare yourself for change and know that how we start in September may change by October and again in January. Plan for backup childcare and tutoring or school work support if you think your children need it. If necessary, reconsider your schooling options. Some private and charter schools may be more likely to offer in-person education in phase 4 or above, mainly because parents make an active choice to attend these types of schools and many of those parents have expressed an overwhelming desire to return to in-person learning. They also tend to be smaller environments, which allows for easier control and the opportunity to communicate more directly with each parent and teacher. For parents who feel very strongly that they want or need in-person schooling regardless of what phase the state is in, there are other options like homeschooling, pods, or creating your own small school that you can explore. Each of these options has a set of rules and considerations but could be viable options.
Take time to think about your options, discuss the pros and cons as a family, be assured that there is no ‘right’ answer and support each other. Don’t feel guilty or frustrated with yourself and try not to compare yourself with others. Each family has to choose what works best for them, given their personal circumstances. If you have to go to work and need to send your child outside of the home to be cared for, you aren’t alone. If you choose to keep your children at home because you worry about the health of their grandparents’ who live with you, that’s fine, even if your best friend chooses to send her kids to school five days a week. Support her choice and expect her support of yours. If you have to go to work and need to send your child outside of the home to be cared for, that’s fine and explore your options to select one that works for you. Only you can take into account your personal circumstances and arrive at the right decision for your family.
With questions or for additional information on alternative schooling options for the 2020-21 school year, contact Rajeshri Gandhi Bhatia at firstname.lastname@example.org