In Michigan, Ann Arbor and two other districts are shutting down for weeks because of coronavirus concerns

Several Michigan school districts, including Ann Arbor Public Schools, announced Thursday they’re closing for several weeks in the wake of concerns about the spread of the new coronavirus, while dozens more are shutting down in the next few days to train staff for the possibility of having to teach classes online

The Ann Arbor district said classes will end after a half day Friday and students won’t return until April 6, after the end of the district’s scheduled spring break vacation. Among the reasons for the shutdown, Superintendent Jeanice Swift said in a letter posted on the district’s web site, is the difficulty of complying with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s recommendations that schools practice “social distancing,” and limit gatherings of 100 or more people.

“As you know, our schools range in size from about 400 students to just under 2,000. There are many times throughout the day that groups of 100 students may be together, including before school starts as they wait for the door to open, to school lunchtime, to recess time. The recommended social distancing measures are simply not possible to achieve in our schools.”

Other districts closing for several weeks: Dexter Community Schools, which is closing until April 7; and Saline Area Schools, which is closing until April 6.

There were many more much shorter closures announced in the wake of the Michigan’s first two cases of coronavirus, involving patients in Wayne and Oakland counties. The state announced Thursday evening that there are now 12 cases of the virus in Michigan.

The Rochester and West Bloomfield school districts in Oakland County announced Wednesday they were canceling classes and training staff in case there is a need for a lengthy shutdown and lessons need to be delivered online.

By the end of the day Thursday, dozens more had announced closures.

That includes all of the schools that are part of the Archdiocese of Detroit. The archdiocese’s schools department directed its schools to close Friday and Monday “for deep cleaning and to allow administration and faculty to discern and prepare for possible options going forward.”

While classes remain in session in the Detroit Public Schools Community District, some charter schools canceled classes.

Ralph Bland, who heads the New Paradigm charter school network in Detroit, said his staff is preparing to provide online learning. Classes are canceled on Monday at the network’s six schools to give teachers time to prepare for the possibility of school closures. 

Bland estimated that more than 50% of his students have internet access at home, but added that the network plans to fill the gap with devices the school will loan to students. 

“We’re taking a survey, and hopefully we can supply [students] with the technology,” Bland said.

Similar types of surveys were reportedly being sent out in suburban schools. 

The reality is that some of the suburban districts — particularly those in wealthier communities in the state — may have an easier time providing online classes.

But in a community like Detroit and in many rural communities, there are equity issues. Far more students in these communities don’t have internet access or the technology needed to do online learning at home.

A U.S. Census report from 2017 found that just 67.5% of Detroit households had broadband internet, the lowest rate among 25 large U.S. cities. 

But it’s not just technology worries that raise questions about whether schools can shut down effectively. In district and charter schools with large populations of students from high-poverty families, school is a sanctuary — and the only place they may receive adequate meals. 

Swift addressed this concern in her letter to students, staff, parents and the community.

“We are committed to continuing to provide meals to our students who count on our schools for food each day as well as making devices and expanded wifi available to support all our students in continuing their learning,” Swift said. “The specifics of this plan are still coming together, but we know this necessary closure adds stress on families that already are facing hardships, and we are committed to ensure necessary support for our families to get through this time.”