No one knows when students will return to Michigan classrooms, but a new panel will plan the safest way to do it

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced that a new panel will develop a blueprint for reopening Michigan schools during a press conference on Friday, May 15. (State of Michigan)

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Friday created a new panel tasked with planning for students to return to classrooms.

She hopes school buildings can reopen this fall, but said Michiganders’ efforts to limit the spread of the coronavirus will determine whether that can happen.

“It’s all going to be determined based on how many people are wearing their masks, how many people are washing their hands,” she said.

The panel will include between 21 and 25 people and will include public health officials, education administrators, teachers, and at least one parent and one student, Whitmer said in a press conference Friday. Michiganders can apply online to take part.

Educators agree that students will continue to fall behind as long as classrooms remain closed. But limiting the spread of germs in classrooms is no easy task, and public health experts worry that reopening schools would allow the coronavirus to spread more quickly, endangering lives. Whitmer hopes that a plan for a careful return to school will avert that scenario.

In Denmark, one of the first countries to reopen its schools, students now sit six feet apart in the classroom and are required to wash their hands every two hours.

The council’s “work will inform the path before us as we evaluate public health, safety, and educational best practices for the 2020-21 school year, said Peter Spadafore, director of communications for the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators. “MASA looks forward to working with Gov. Whitmer and other stakeholders on the path toward a safe reopening of Michigan’s schools.”

While polls indicate that Michiganders generally support Whitmer’s handling of the pandemic, her executive orders have faced some fierce opposition. The state legislature is suing Whitmer in court in a bid to end her emergency orders, including ones shuttering school buildings. At the same time, cell phone data show that residents of the state have begun to leave home more, despite the governor’s pleas for citizens to avoid public spaces.

The panel, called the Return to School Advisory Council, will “reflect the diverse geographic and demographic composition of this state,” according to Whitmer’s order. It will exist underneath the education task force that Whitmer already assembled to deal with coronavirus-related questions. She will appoint the task force’s members.

The objective of the council is to develop recommendations for a “safe, equitable, and efficient” return to school. That includes recommending policy measures to smooth the return to school and to help students who have fallen behind due to the school closures.

“My hope is that by organizing a formal process informed by public health experts, we can give school districts much-needed direction heading into the 2020-2021 school year,” Whitmer said.

Principals will look to the plan for advice on how to limit the spread of infection in their buildings, Paul Liabenow, director of the Michigan Elementary and Middle School Principals Association, said.

“When we do get back to face-to-face, how do we make sure that they’re able to provide some input as to the protocols, safety issues, transportation, all the way to how we handle in-classroom spacing,” he said.

To apply to serve on the panel, click here and navigate to the Boards and Commissions section. Applications are due by Wednesday, May 20.

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