LANSING, Mich. - Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the state health department is strongly encouraging school districts to offer in-person learning to pre-k12 students on March 1.
The state said its goal is to have all districts in the state offering learning in the classroom by no later than the beginning of March.
The governor's encouragement comes after Whitmer announced plans to move Michigan into phase 2 of its vaccine administration, which makes educators like teachers eligible for inoculation.
"Over the last 9 months, medical experts and epidemiologists have closely followed the data and know now that schools can establish a low risk of transmission by ensuring everyone wears a mask and adopting careful infection prevention protocols," said Whitmer.
"I strongly encourage school districts to provide as much face-to-face learning as possible," she added.
By the time the state's goal is met, Michigan will have experienced almost a full year of disrupted learning plans after the 2019-20 school year was cut short and subsequent semesters were met with remote-in-person learning hybrid plans.
The disruption made learning more difficult for younger students, those that don't speak English as a first language, and those that lack the resources to learn remotely. It's also made parenting more difficult as guardians were forced to work around class plans and work schedules.
The return to a form of normalcy arrives as vaccines become more available around the state and rapid testing for COVID-19 programs are implemented in school districts.
"MDHHS will continue to do what it takes to save lives and limit the spread of COVID-19," said Director Robert Gordon in a statement. "At the same time, in-person instruction is critical for the current and the future well-being of children, especially young learners and students who are disadvantaged. We encourage schools to reopen as soon as they can do so with proven protections for staff and students."
Along with encouragement from government leaders, the health department is also releasing control measures that can reduce infection in classrooms when students return. They include:
- When feasible, assigning children to cohort groups and limiting their interactions to their cohorts to reduce the number of contacts.
- Keeping children 6 feet apart from one another to the extent feasible, making creative use of school spaces to facilitate distancing.
- Providing adequate hand sanitizing supplies and reinforcing proper handwashing techniques.
- Improving air ventilation.
- Having staff and students conduct self-screenings for symptoms at home every day before going to school.
- Ensuring school plans are in place in coordination with their local health department if there are any positive COVID-19 tests.
- Having staff and students who either test positive or are close contacts of those who test positive follow the guidance issued by MDHHS as well as local health departments. Anyone who is considered a close contact of someone who tests positive but does not have symptoms should quarantine for 10 days under CDC guidance.
The K-12 Alliance said that in-person learning was the best way for students to retain information, but vaccines are critical to ensuring that in-person learning can remain safe.
"We have always agreed in-person learning is the best option for students and appreciate Governor Whitmer’s belief in that. To be successful in that, however, now requires broad access to the COVID-19 vaccine for school employees and ensuring there is very clear guidance made available on when vaccinated employees can return to work," said Executive Director Robert McCann. "The Governor’s announcement today is welcomed, but we will now need the support of our health officials to provide vaccines and guidance to ensure that teachers and students can return to classrooms safely and successfully.
After the state updated its latest coronavirus restrictions in December, high schools reopened in-person learning to students this week. Grades 9-12 were asked to teach remotely after the state's second surge of daily cases.
Two days after students went back to class, Whitmer announced that more groups would be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. Among them are teachers.
The lead-up to more vaccines, better safety measures, and rapid-testing means the state is ready to reopen schools everywhere, Whitmer said.
"March 1 signifies we have learned we can pursue in-person instruction safely. A lot of schools have been doing this and have been successful even before vaccines were imminently on the horizon. We're grateful for how seriously they took the protocols, how well they kept people safe. And we have expedited, of course, teachers into the group eligible for a vaccine."