Michigan classrooms will be closed through the end of the school year to slow the spread of the new coronavirus, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced Thursday.

“My number one priority right now is protecting Michigan families from the spread of COVID-19,” Whitmer said. “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.”

School districts will be required to create local plans for remote learning, Whitmer said. Education leaders will release a template plan on April 3, and each district will create a version tailored to its community for approval. 

“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,” Whitmer said.

The announcement clears up other key questions about the school closures. According to Whitmer:

  • Seniors will graduate on time;
  • Teachers and school employees will be paid through the end of the year;
  • State tests will be canceled;
  • School districts will be able to begin the 2020-2021 school year before Labor Day without having to seek additional approval.

Although some aspects of Whitmer’s orders may still need a vote from the Republican-led legislature, key lawmakers signaled that the measures have the GOP’s support.

“The Senate Republican Caucus worked closely with the governor’s team to provide input on a plan for student learning across all education settings,” said Senate Majority Mike Shirkey in a statement. “Our efforts are reflected in” Whitmer’s order.

Teaching students from a distance won’t be easy. Many students in Michigan don’t have internet access, and few teachers have experience delivering instruction online.

“Local needs and the digital divide in our state will make each district’s pathway to student success unique,” said the directors of the Michigan Association of Superintendents & Administrators, the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators, the Michigan Association of School Boards, and the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals, in a statement.

 “We have confidence that each district will find ways to support students and advance learning despite any challenges.”

Many districts are already working to keep students learning and give them access to technology.

Aundrea Johnson, principal of Detroit Edison Public School Academy Elementary School, a school in the New Paradigm for Education Network, prepares computers for distribution to families.
PHOTO CREDIT: New Paradigm for Education

“At the end of the day, every parent in our network will have a computer,” said Ralph Bland, president of New Paradigm for Education, a network of charter schools in Detroit that enrolls 2,400 students.

Internet access remains an issue for many families, he added. 

“There are going to be inequities, because we have families in general that don’t have access to the internet,” he said. “As a community, we really have to come together and figure out a way to ensure that those families receive internet capabilities.”

Uncertainty about the remaining school year mounted in recent days, as educators demanded answers and superintendents publicly questioned whether they would be able to pay teachers through the end of the year.

Whitmer’s statement on Thursday is the culmination of discussions between a bipartisan group of lawmakers and education advocates, which picked up steam last week as it became less clear when school buildings would be able to reopen.

Students and schools will need to scramble next year to make up for the lost time, said Amber Arellano, executive director of the nonpartisan Education Trust-Midwest, an advocacy organization, in a statement.

“Just as summer leaves a learning loss, COVID-19 will leave a significant learning loss that requires an educational recovery that is just as important as immediate health concerns. For thousands of Michigan students, future academic outcomes are at stake, as well as life outcomes such as lifetime job earnings,” she said.

Whitmer said that remote learning efforts won’t make up for the missed classroom time.

“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,” she said.

In the wake of Whitmer’s announcement, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the city district is developing a plan for distance learning to be released April 14.

Our district staff has been working hard since school was closed to develop a new learning framework that will offer learning opportunities for PreK-12 students in literacy, mathematics, science, and social studies,” he said in a statement.

In addition to online instruction, he said, lessons will be printed for students who lack internet access.

Michigan is the largest state to call off its school year amid the COVID-19 outbreak, and the first in the midwest. Governors in nine other states have ordered closures through the summer, according to Education Week.