As the calendar turned to August, rather than shopping for school clothes and school supplies, parents all over the metro area, as well as all over the country, are being confronted with a new and unique dilemma: Send their children to school, in-person, or have them stay home for at least the fall semester of 2020 and learn virtually.
Many districts have made the decision easy for parents, and decided they're going to be virtual, at least for the first half of the year. Among those: Rochester, Southfield, Grosse Pointe, Farmington, Berkley, Walled Lake, Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, and Lansing area schools.
So far, Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills school districts are offering parents options – in Birmingham, a half-day, five-day a week in-person option, with the child care problems that will engender; in Bloomfield Hills, a full day five-day a week, in-person option, along with virtual options, unless Gov. Whitmer or the Oakland County Health Department decide otherwise at the 11th hour. Oakland County districts have been preparing plans as they await word from the county health department around August 18 – only a couple weeks before the start of school, leaving them little time for preparation.
Either option brings risks and challenges. For students, parents and teachers, in-person education this year means potentially endangering their, and their family's, health by possible exposure to COVID-19. Social distancing requirements, constant hand washing, mandatory wearing of masks, changes in how schools will be structured, so that children, especially at the elementary level, will not move around to specialists but will have them come to their classrooms, and the closure of cafeterias and many gyms, are all sound efforts to decrease the spread of COVID-19, as well as seasonal flu, cold, and other illnesses.
There are also valid worries regarding staying virtual, with quality of education, as evidenced from this past spring only one example. MI Safe Schools: Michigan's 2020-21 Return to School Roadmap created by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's COVID-19 Task Force requires every district to come up with a virtual option that is equal to an in-person educational experience, and local districts have taken that to heart, with virtual classes at both districts to be taught by district teachers with the same academic standards and assessment goals.
“Virtual is still part of our curriculum. It must be aligned with our standards and our curriculum. Assessments and grading will be done like traditional education,” said Birmingham Superintendent Mark Dziatczak.
Isolation from peers, mental health and wellness are definitely concerns for students and parents, and ones that can, and must, be addressed. Peer connections are critical in adolescence.
There is also the major issue of the lack of universal internet, issues of broadband strength and computer access, an issue for not only those living in less than affluent conditions. Schools are planning to provide all students with tablets or laptops, a huge expense as education is experiencing funding cuts, but society needs to look at wireless internet as a universal utility, like electricity, as the educational divide grows wider.
But reality can be a tough animal to fight off – as cases of the virus continue to climb, so does updated research that children can carry and spread it as much as adults, even if they are often asymptomatic. Teachers with underlying health conditions – or who are afraid – are retiring rather than heading back to the classroom. Oakland County Health Department recently reported a steep increase of cases in southwest areas of the county, Genesee County and Livingston County following graduation and prom parties in July among kids aged 15-19 – rising to 94 cases by early August.
Ultimately, schools are caught between a rock and a hard place. Like with some other public policy concerns during this pandemic, Michigan and Oakland County have never publicly released firm metrics in terms of infection and testing results rates upon which we would think public policy is established, so we are often left with generalities – like it's getting better or worse – when it comes to the state of affairs.
There are health officials who have suggested that no more than 3 to 3.5 percent COVID-19 positivity testing rate should be established for schools to be open – yet as of Friday, July 31, in Oakland County, the rate of positive tests was 4.9 percent – and rising since the county has been reopening. That test positivity percentage rate comes from national tracking organizations because nowhere is that metric publicly posted by Oakland County or the state of Michigan.
School officials and the public need a decision – now – about the fate of in-person education. And if the percentage of positive test results in the county remains on an upward trajectory, then it's time to shut the doors of the classrooms until we've turned the corner on the disease.