Most area schools set to return to or remain in person after Whitmer’s request to go virtual | COVID-19
TRAVERSE CITY – The decision to close middle and high schools wasn’t a very popular one.
Both the Grand Traverse County Health Department and local school districts took some heat after announcing Monday that 6th-12th graders would be returning to virtual learning for this week. Despite criticism of the move, Health Department officials estimated that the four-day hiatus slowed the COVID-19 surge and saved 500 students from quarantine.
“People should be really proud of the choice they made, even if they didn’t like it – myself included,” said Keith Smith, superintendent of Kingsley Area Schools. “If you look at the numbers, it was really the right decision.”
Grand Traverse County and other neighboring county superintendents had a one-hour conference call with officials from the Department of Health and Munson Medical Center to discuss extending the closure for another week. Unlike on Monday, the health department didn’t issue a policy, instead saying that the decision to return in person or stay virtual is left to the individual districts.
Smith doesn’t believe the community backlash played a role in guiding the Department of Health.
“You get as much criticism for staying open as you do for closing,” said Smith. “You can’t make decisions based on what makes people happy. If you are trying to make everyone happy, you are not making anyone happy. All you have to do is do what you think is best. “
Although COVID-19 numbers are higher for college students in other parts of the state, health officials agreed that the case rate in Grand Traverse County doesn’t warrant an extension of the shutdown. People ages 0-19 now make up a smaller percentage (16) of the county’s positive cases in April, compared with 21 percent in March.
The Traverse City Area Public Schools Board of Education will meet at 5:30 p.m. Saturday to determine the district’s plan of action for the next week.
“Any local district that has the ability to analyze its data and make decisions is what many have advocated,” said John VanWagoner, superintendent of TCAPS.
Health officials and area overseers were ready to re-examine Monday’s decision on Friday, but Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s morning press conference added another wrinkle to the discussion.
Whitmer urged all high schools to volunteer virtual for the next two weeks to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Dr. Joneigh S. Khaldun, Michigan Department of Health’s chief medical executive, recommended the move and encouraged school districts to sign up for the MDHHS testing program if they would like to continue receiving face-to-face teaching.
“We all have to go beyond the rules we already have,” said Whitmer.
Michigan’s Department of Education superintendent Michael Rice supported Whitmer’s request, saying that a two-week virtual tour will help “the common good of our state and the health of our residents.”
“Michigan educators, students, and families rose to the challenge over the past year. I am confident that they will continue to do what it takes to save lives as we continue to fight the pandemic, “said Rice.
Lisa Peacock, health officer for the Benzie-Leelanau Department of Health, said data supports staying open to personal teaching and learning.
“We are observing this very closely. We check the data every day, ”she said. “If the situation changes … we will adjust this plan.”
Whitmer made it clear that the guide to go virtual was not an instruction, mandate, or requirement. However, some educators were still confused about the language difference between the governor and Khaldun.
“It’s this kind of incongruence where they do that that can make it really interesting to us,” said Glen Lake Community Schools superintendent Jon Hoover, adding that his district will remain open to personal education.
Hoover said he spoke to Benzie-Leelanau’s health director, Michelle Klein, as well as his senior district nurse to make the decision. Both agreed that it might be safe to stay open.
“I even went to the PA and said to the kids, ‘Hey gang, see you Monday,” said Hoover.
Suttons Bay superintendent Casey Petz said he appreciated that Whitmer did not issue a mandate or order.
“For some districts (staying closed) is the right choice. If you have a widespread outbreak, massive quarantine issues, or anxiety affecting education, this is definitely the place to go, ”Petz said. “But I know that not many superintendents or families want that choice to be taken away from them.”
Most counties tend towards the inpatient option.
Officials from Northwest Education Services, Grand Traverse Area Catholic Schools, Traverse City Christian, Grand Traverse Academy, Buckley, Kalkaska, Benzie Central, Kingsley and Frankfort said they would be in person next Monday.
Smith said he had yet to discuss the decision with his school board, but said he would be surprised if they stayed virtual for another week.
The decision was not an easy one for Robert Walker, Superintendent of Greenspire School. Although the charter school students will be back in class on Monday, Walker was one of the few superintendents who raised concerns about personal return.
“This has been on my mind since the first day of school,” said Walker. “This is a really difficult time, but it really has to be left to every single district and even every single school within a district.”