Northern Michigan schools prepare for in-person instruction amid COVID uncertainty

Aug 17, 2020

A classroom in Traverse City. Photo taken in 2019.
Credit Max Johnston / Interlochen Public Radio

Many northern Michigan schools will return to in-person instruction this fall. That has some parents and teachers worried about transmission of the coronavirus.


Traverse City Area Public Schools approved a plan to return to in-person learning on Sept. 21 after two weeks of online instruction.

“That would allow us to have two weeks to get a lot of training in with our staff,” TCAPS Superintendent John VanWagoner said. “To make sure that all of the safety protocols that we have to do, that we get it right.”

But some TCAPS teachers aren’t convinced. A majority prefer an online or hybrid model this year, according to one internal survey of teaching staff.

“Group settings equals transmission of [the] virus,” teacher Ingrid Pylvainen said during a TCAPS Board of Education meeting. “We will be unsafe if we meet in-person while the virus is still being transmitted in our community. It will be impossible to know if TCAPS did too much, but it will be devastating if we do too little.”

Pylvainen added that the district can offer instruction, mental health resources and food remotely. Several board members echoed her concerns, and said the in-person instruction plan is flexible and subject to change if local COVID cases increase.

Board Member Jeff Leonhardt voted ‘no’ on the plan.

“I can’t help but point out the irony of us being required to meet virtually and yet we’re considering opening school face-to-face,” he said.

Some districts are taking extra precautions to address safety concerns. TCAPS and Buckley Community Schools will offer online alternatives to parents that aren’t comfortable sending their kids back. Even though northern Michigan is in Phase 5 (the safest phase) of the MI Safe Start Plan, Buckley Schools approved a plan using guidelines as if the region will be in Phase 4. 

“We will be using lots of stronger mitigating measures in an effort to stay open longer,” Buckley Superintendent Jessica Harrand said.

Harrand said one factor in their decision was a letter from the Michigan Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics in support of face-to-face learning.

“A return to school is most essential for the youngest and most at-risk students,” the June letter reads. “A virtual learning environment highlights existing inequities, leaving behind the most vulnerable.” 

A preview

The Crawford AuSable School District in Otsego County already has almost 200 students in school. The district's Extended Learning Year (ELY) program has students in kindergarten through fourth grade. 

Superintendent Justin Gluesing says — so far — the ELY program has started smoothly. Students follow a “if you move, you mask” policy, meaning they wear masks anytime they’re in a communal area like the hallway or library. They also socially-distance on the bus and at lunch, where the district is using their gyms to serve as de-facto extra cafeterias.

Gluesing says they’re cleaning the building frequently, and have hired more staff to help.

“We’re spending tens of thousands of dollars on new equipment,” Gluesing said. “We need to make those investments from a safety and mitigation standpoint.”

Funding is a concern for many districts, as they have to approve their back-to-school plans without a clear idea of what money the state and federal government will offer.