Northern Michigan schools prepare for uncertain future after governor suspends in-person learning

Apr 3, 2020

Students listen attentively during a summer reading course at Blair Elementary School.
Credit Morgan Springer

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer suspended in-person learning for the remainder of the school year under an executive order, on Thursday, April 2.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Michigan public school buildings will be closed but districts will recieve most, if not all, of their alloted funding from the state. 

In return they must continue to provide learning options, especially online alternatives, and essential services for students.

Districts have time to implement those learning plans and must keep offering other services like food and mental health resources. Academically, students who were on track to advance a grade or graduate will still do so. 

"Schools must continue to provide, and students must continue to receive, the highest level of educational opportunities possible under the difficult circumstances now before us," the order reads.

School employees will also be paid for the remainder of the school year. 

Online learning

Most districts will have to pivot to online learning, but Superintendent of Benzie Schools Matt Olson says 25 percent of the families in his district don't have quality internet access. The district will keep offering online alternatives, educational packets and in some cases Google Chromebooks for parents to take home.

Interim Superintendent of Traverse City Area Public Schools Jim Pavelka says the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District is trying to expand internet access in rural parts of the district through things like mobile hotspots.

Unanswered Questions

Graduation ceremonies for high schoolers are normally sprinkled throughout May and June. Benzie Schools Superintendent Matt Olson says graduation is a significant milestone for students and they still want to provide that ceremony in some form.

"We're going to either find a way to do something unique given the constraints we have, or do something we've always done ... which is to have a ceremony with people there, on a different timeline," Olson said.

The future

Many education stakeholders say the COVID-19 pandemic could drastically change the next several school years. For example, Whitmer's executive order provides districts some flexibility on next year's calendar, with the potential to start the 2020-21 school year early.

Pavelka says that may happen to catch students up on lost learning opportunities, but he says it will take at least three full years for TCAPS to return to some sense of normalcy.

"This year has already been impacted, next year will be impacted also because there may be some catch-up learning that needs to take place," Pavelka said. "The year after (that) we'll be putting things back together."

Switching to online and remote learning will have significant impacts on students, accordingto Petoskey Schools Superintendent Chris Parker. He says the COVID-19 pandemic makes it harder for students to focus on schooling.

"This has been a really big thing for students to have to deal with," Parker said. "The first part of our engagement with them is making sure we're checking in on their mental health."

School districts have until April 28 to implement their learning and COVID-19 response plans.