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Uncertainty abounds during ‘unprecedented situation’ after governor orders school closure

Schools in Michigan will remain closed through April 5 to slow COVID-19 spread

With the sudden announcement that all Michigan K-12 schools will be closed through April 5 to curb the spread of COVID-19, health officials, teachers, parents and students are facing an uncertain reality of what the coming days will bring.

During an 11 p.m. press conference Thursday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered the closure of all Michigan K-12 schools, March 16 through April 5, to combat the spread of COVID-19. The measure was taken after it was confirmed that cases of the novel coronavirus disease had increased from two to 12 in the state, including three presumptive cases in Kent County. Many districts canceled school today as well.

‘We support the governor’s decision and appreciate where she’s going with this.’

— Kent ISD Superintendent Ron Caniff

Kent County Health Department spokesperson Steve Kelso said Friday morning that slowing the spread of the virus is the focus. Health Department officials were in meetings and communicating with local government officials, following an extremely busy few days of new developments.

“It’s like trying to catch a falling knife,” Kelso said. “Right now, the fact that we know this is in the community is not a huge surprise.”

The department is expecting more cases, and stresses mitigation efforts be taken seriously by all. How the pandemic has unfolded in countries like China, Iran and Italy show its potential.  “We are busy. We are on guard,” he said. “We expect a ramp-up in cases; it just makes sense.”

Quickly Changing Situation

During a press conference with Kent ISD Thursday, just hours before the governor’s announcement, officials had indicated Kent County schools would remain open, though many measures would be implemented to slow the spread. Things changed quickly with the governor’s order. 

“We support the governor’s decision and appreciate where she’s going with this,” said Kent ISD Superintendent Ron Caniff. “We recognize she’s doing this for all right reasons – to protect the health and safety of all children.”

Caniff said all decisions are being made with the communities’ best interest in mind.

“This is uncharted territory for all of us – it’s an unprecedented situation. Please know we are all trying hard to make the best decisions for students, parents and our staff. Our decision-making is rooted in this effort – to do what’s in the best interest in the health and welfare of the students and staff we’re blessed to work with each day.”

District-wide, administrators are meeting and coordinating plans for the coming weeks. 

There are many unknowns when it comes to the virus, and testing is still limited, Kelso said. If the virus spreads too quickly, hospitals and medical facilities could become overtaxed, and it’s already been a harsh influenza season.

“Gosh, keep washing your hands. Limit contact,” he said, as a message to the community. “There are so many questions we can’t answer. Every day represents a new day in history.”

Cassandra Cones, a Grand Rapids Public Schools custodian, picks up insulin for her nephew at Union High School

Staying Home

Parents are coming up with plans for childcare, working from home and meeting increased food needs. 

Ruth Stein, mother of a student in Grand Rapids Public Schools, said she supports the precaution of keeping students home for now, although she would have liked them to have Friday at school to help prepare for the weeks off.

“If they think this is going to be helpful, I’m good with it,” said Stein, whose daughter, Sarah, is a ninth grader at Grand Rapids Montessori. “But I do realize it’s easier for us to say that than a lot of other families. We have the resources to handle this.”

With her husband working from home, internet access and ample food in the house, Stein worries about others who don’t have those resources.

“We can skate through this without much difficulty,” said Stein, noting Sarah has plenty of school work to do. “But I’m very aware that we’re extremely lucky.”

Wyoming High School sophomore Aidan Curtis said he plans to make the most of his time at home, focus on core classes and getting things done virtually.

“I was more surprised than anything. I thought they would push it off to at least Spring Break,” he said of the closure. “I feel like we can get caught up pretty quickly online.”

He said he plans to spend the time studying and still trying to enjoy life.

“School is always at the forefront of my attention. After school comes play. I will go with the flow,” Aidan said. “I never would have thought this day would come.”

He said he supports the closure, but is concerned about the level of alarm from people.

“I think the precautionary measures are wise. Maybe it shouldn’t be as scary, for lack of a better word, from the media. I feel like people are panicking. Panicking never resulted in anything positive.”

Aidan said he feels lucky his grandma can watch his elementary-aged sister while his mother works. “We are lucky we have that option. Some people don’t have that.”

Union High School teachers Beth Snyder, left, and Mary Tibbets discuss how to deliver lessons to students while picking up supplies Friday

Teachers Rethinking Lessons 

The break from in-classroom instruction means teachers will have to devise ways to teach from a distance. While some districts have one-to-one computer devices for all their students, others face a stark disparity in their students’ digital resources and access. 

Online learning will vary widely, according to Kent ISD officials. Main issues with implementing complete online instruction include that some families lack devices and Internet fast enough for online work. For example, Kent ISD’s campus, the MySchool@Kent program, which is always partly online, will continue completely online. Kent Innovation High School will try to do some instruction virtually. Continuing instruction will be more difficult for  Kent Career Tech Center because not all students have good Wi-Fi and because of the hands-on nature of the classes there.

At Union High School in Grand Rapids Public Schools, teachers Beth Snyder and Mary Tibbets discussed their options while picking up supplies Friday morning. Although unclear as to how to proceed at that point, they were concerned about continuing their instruction to students with uneven access to computer technology. 

“We’re just worried about the students,” said Snyder, a college and career teacher. “If we’re uncertain, how do they feel? … How many of our students truly do have access? They have smartphones, but they depend on coming here for internet access. They don’t have the data. It’s hard to do actual assignments on a smartphone.”

Not all students even have smartphones, or have older models, the teachers said. They also worried about students who are preparing for SAT tests in mid-April, and hoped the state would push back the date. And they wondered whether Spring Break would be impacted by the three-week closing, scheduled to end week of the break for Kent ISD schools. 

They were hoping to get more direction from the district soon but making their best preparations they could in the meantime. Tibbets, an English teacher, said for now she would put resources and websites online for her students to practice with.

“That’s my hope, that we can at least get them online for 30 minutes a day,” she said. “It’s not a lot, but it’s something.” 

SNN reporter Charles Honey and editor Allison Kaufman contributed to this story.

CONNECT 

COVID-19 updates from Kent County Health Department 

Information from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2013. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.

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