Rural superintendents pleased with Whitmer's school plan, but still have unanswered questions

Jul 3, 2020

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at a press conference announced her 'Return to School Roadmap.'
Credit Executive Office of the Governor

A few weeks ago, IPR reported on the problems facing rural schools in northern Michigan before next fall. Now, Governor Gretchen Whitmer has provided a roadmap for them to reopen.

But there is still a lot of uncertainty on what next school year will look like.

Many schools were left in limbo while the state hammered out it’s budget and back to school plan. Now, a budget agreement has been reached and the governor released her ‘Return to School Roadmap.’

"The safety protocols detailed in the ‘MI Safe Schools’ roadmap includes guidance on the use of PPE, good hygiene, cleaning and disinfecting, spacing in classrooms, screening for symptoms, athletics and more," Whitmer said in a press conference.

The roadmap is 63-pages long and has different requirements for schools based on how severe the pandemic is in their region. If COVID-19 is still spreading and there isn’t enough testing in an area, then classes will be entirely online. If cases are flat or declining, then students go back to school.

The roadmap is popular

Overall the roadmap has been well received.

Marlen Cordes runs the Kaleva-Norman Dickson and Bear Lake School Districts near Manistee.

“Until you have that blueprint you just don’t know how to proceed for sure, so I was very happy to see it come out and happy to see it was quite detailed,” he said.

What Cordes is still worried about is bussing. His districts span well over 300 square miles and he spends a lot of his funding on transportation.

A fleet of buses at Benzie Central High School.
Credit Max Johnston / Interlochen Public Radio

The roadmap has requirements for cleaning and social distancing on buses. It also has recommendations that districts stagger pickup times so they aren’t packed.

But Cordes says he doesn’t have the staff or time to do all that.

"If we have 500 students and we have 350 of them that ride our bus, we just can’t go with six buses and pick up 25 kids at a time and get them to school and make it work with our days and hours requirement," Cordes said.

Cordes says he was pleased to see that the state is requiring most students and staff to wear masks, which have become a political topic.

“That takes a lot of that out of our hands and I know that for a lot of people that can be a controversial issue so I was happy to see that decision was made for us,” he said.

Enforcement

Enforcing rules like that are a big concern for many districts. Justin Gluesing, superintendent of Crawford AuSable Schools, is hiring people specifically to help them clean buildings and enforce new guidelines.

“Whether they be paraprofessionals or food service personnel or custodial staff,” Gluesing said.

But he says the roadmap doesn’t have much guidance on hiring teachers. Gluesing says he was ready to hire a couple strong candidates for the upcoming school year, but COVID put that on hold.

Gluesing worries he won’t be able to get those candidates back whenever things return to normal.

“You almost feel like you missed your place in line and now you’ve gotta go to the end of the line again," he said.

Buckley Community Schools Superintendent Jessica Harrand is also worried about enforcement. For example, the roadmap recommends that students don’t share school supplies.

But Harrand doesn’t know what to do if they don’t listen.

“We already struggle with vape pens in school and there’s at least some level of law enforcement backing with that," Harrand said. "You’re certainly not going to have a law enforcement officer come in and say ‘they were sharing crayons. I want you to do something about that.’"

Harrand’s district has other concerns too. The entire school district is housed in one building.

She says a requirement to screen students for COVID symptoms before entering the building will be tough.

“We’ve really funneled everybody through one entrance, so now we’re thinking about how do we separate them a little more, do we have them come in at different locations, can we afford to screen people at different locations?” she said.

A foggy funding future

The state will provide an additional $250 million dollars to schools to implement these changes. There’s likely to be more federal money in the near-future too.

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

That means Michigan schools should be decently-funded for the immediate future, but it’s the next few years that are uncertain.

State Sen. Wayne Schmidt (R-Traverse City) is on the Senate’s education budget subcommittee.

“We’re still working on those details, trying to figure out what we’re going to do for federal money. There are a number of things that are still up in the air, but there are some bright spots in the economy,” he said.

Schmidt says one option might be giving more money to local health departments to hire more people. He says that might help answer some of these questions for schools.

“We’re not talking thousands and thousands of employees, but rather one or two critical people in outreach, or another person or two to help school nurses and their staff. Just have some extra help and be a little sharper as they move forward,” Schmidt said.