By Harold C. Ford
“If we have to go back to school next week, we’ll be ready.”
—Anita Steward, superintendent, Flint Community Schools, Oct. 13, 2020
Anita Steward, superintendent of Flint Community Schools (FCS), presented a multi-pronged plan for the possible reopening of schools on a face-to-face/brick-and-mortar basis to the FCS Board of Education’s Governance Subcommittee on Oct. 13.
The FCS team that included Eileen Tomasi, school health coordinator, devised the plan while receiving input from Flint area members of the medical community including:
• Gwendolyn Reyes, MD, pediatrician, Hurley Medical Center;
• Bobby Mukkamala, MD, head and neck surgeon, chair-elect of the American Medical Association;
• Lawrence Reynolds, MD, pediatrician, former president and CEO of Mott Children’s Health Center, former member of Flint Water Advisory Task Force, medical adviser to Flint mayor Sheldon Neeley;
• Genesee County Health Department officials.
The announcement of the FCS plan was in response to recent decisions by Michigan’s Supreme Court that struck down Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s executive orders intended to control the COVID-19 pandemic. Subsequent decisions by the executive and legislative branches of Michigan’s state government have added additional uncertainties to the political landscape for local units of government including school district boards.
Setbacks for Whitmer’s executive orders
On Oct. 2, the Michigan Supreme Court struck down Whitmer’s COVID-19 executive orders in a 4-3 majority decision. Justice Stephen J. Markman said the orders were an “unlawful delegation of legislative power to the executive branch in violation of the Michigan Constitution.”
The lawsuit challenging the orders was brought by members of the Republican Party challenging the governor’s executive authority under the Emergency Powers of Governor Act (EPGA) of 1945 and the Emergency Management Act (EMA) of 1976. The former does not require permission from the legislature to extend a state of emergency, but the latter mandates that s/he do so after 28 days. Whitmer’s orders went beyond 28 days.
The majority consisted of Republican-nominated justices including Markman, Brian Zahra, David Viviano, and Beth Clement. Chief Justice Bridget McCormack wrote the dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Megan Cavanagh and Richard Bernstein.
In a subsequent 6-1 ruling, only Justice Richard Bernstein would have granted a stay requested by the Whitmer administration to allow more time to prepare contingency plans.
“Alternative sources of authority”
Following the rulings by the Michigan Supreme Court, Whitmer said her directives would remain in place through “alternative sources of authority.”
On Oct. 9, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) attempted to fill some of the void left by the decisions of Michigan’s high court by issuing statewide mandates that mirrored those previously levied by the Whitmer administration.
“Our goal is to maintain policies that have made a drastic difference in the fight against COVID-19,” said Robert Gordon, MDHHS director, in a press release. “Masks (and) social distancing reduce the spread of COVID-19. Public action is critical to saving Michigander’s lives.”
On Oct. 14, Michigan’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA) also issued new emergency rules that further replaced some of the regulations put forth in Whitmer’s executive orders that were struck down by Michigan’s high court.
High court decisions caused cancellations of virtual public meetings
The uncertainties resulting from recent decisions, or nondecisions, made by all three branches of Michigan’s state government created confusion for local units of government, including school boards. The Oct. 2 and Oct. 12 high court decisions led to the postponement or cancellation of numerous public meetings around the state that were to have been conducted virtually.
Attorneys for several local governmental bodies advised that, in light of the Michigan Supreme Court’s Oct. 2 and Oct. 12 decisions, virtual meetings might violate the state’s Open Meetings Act. City council meetings in Flint and Lansing, and other public meetings, were cancelled.
“Combined with today’s ruling and absent clarity from the Michigan Legislature, it is not clear we could satisfy the requirements of the Michigan Open Meetings Act virtually,” said Peter Spadafore, Lansing council president, in a statement.
Cancellations also included a full meeting of Flint’s school board on Oct. 14 at which it would have tackled the Steward administration’s four-pronged plan for a possible reopening of schools that had been presented to the board’s Governance Subcommittee the night before on Oct. 13.
On Oct. 16, Whitmer signed into law a bill speedily passed by the Michigan Legislature that allows municipal governments, school boards, and other bodies to continue meeting virtually through the end of 2020.
At press time, FCS had not announced any intentions to reschedule the cancelled Oct. 14 meeting of the board. The next scheduled meeting of the FCS board, according to its website, is Oct. 21.
High court decisions create uncertainty for local school districts
Prior to the Michigan Supreme Court’s recent decisions, Michigan school districts found themselves in a Phase 4 status of the governor’s MI Safe Schools: Michigan’s 2020-21 Return to School Roadmap. The plan had six “phases” from 1, the worst pandemic status, to 6, the best. Phase 4 allowed for either face-to-face/brick-and-mortar or virtual/online instruction, or a hybrid of the two.
“Does that mean that the Roadmap doesn’t exist anymore, that we automatically go back to school?” Steward asked, “We’re trying to figure that out.”
“We’re leaning heavily on the medical community for their recommendations,” Steward added. The medical community is “now recommending for the students to go back to school … it’s OK for our kids to return face-to-face,” she said.
“I just think there’s a lot of uncertainty in this whole conversation,” said Danielle Green, board treasurer. “It’s a lot of assumptions here that can cause some people their lives … it’s going to be a ‘no’ (vote) again” about returning to school.”
“We may not have a choice,” Steward said. “Our schools seem to be doing a much better job. They receive it (the virus) from somewhere else.”
“As long as I have a choice, then the vote is going to be ‘no’ again,” Green responded.
Flint’s return to school plan
Steward, her cabinet, and building administrators cobbled together a four-pronged return to school plan that would prepare the district for several scenarios. She presented them as Plans A, B, C, and D.
Plan A would have the district continue in a Phase 4 status based on the governor’s Roadmap. It allows districts to choose face-to-face/brick-and-mortar or virtual/online instruction, or a hybrid of the two. FCS chose to start the 2020-21 school year on Aug. 4 with virtual/online instruction only.
Plan B would first return younger students — those who Steward said are in their “foundational years … our most vulnerable population”— to face-to-face/brick-and-mortar instruction. On Nov. 9, the following student populations would return, perhaps on a hybrid approach: all students in self-contained classrooms who need extra services; ECDD (Early Childhood Development Delay) students; pre-kindergarten; kindergarten; 1st graders; and 2nd graders. The return of all other students is “to be determined” under Plan B. Virtual/online instruction would still be available to those who choose it.
Plans C-1 and C-2 (a slightly amended version of C-1) are based on the premise that students return to face-to-face/brick-and-mortar instruction. FCS would return student populations on the following dates: students in self-contained classrooms, ECDD students, pre-kindergartners, and kindergartners on Nov. 9; 1st and 2nd graders on Nov. 30; 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders on Dec. 7; 6th, 7th, and 8th graders on Jan. 4, 2021; 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th graders on Jan. 19, 2021. Virtual/online learning would still be available to those who choose it.
Plan D: All students would return to school on Nov. 9 for face-to-face/brick-and-mortar instruction.
Surveys and staffing assignments
FCS Assistant Superintendent Kevelin Jones said that the district’s administrators and Wellness Teams were attempting to contact all FCS families to determine their instructional preference. He reported to the FCS board on Oct. 13 that, based on about 180 responses, families were fairly evenly divided about a return to school buildings: about 55 percent of respondents favored face-to-face/brick-and-mortar; about 43 percent favored virtual/online.
“There are some families that have determined that they want to be online, and then there are some families that have determined, ‘Hey, I need my child back in school,’” said Jones.
FCS officials hoped to complete the survey process by Oct. 16. Then staffing decisions, based on the survey data, would be led by Cassandra Washington, executive director for human resources.
Steward emphasized to board members that any return to the school buildings would be based on adequate provision of PPE (personal protective equipment) and implementation of other safety measures. Steward and Jones said they will visit all 11 FCS buildings “to assure that all of the PPE is in place like it should be.”
“You have to inspect what you expect,” Steward said.
Steward and her team hope to have all PPE and safety procedures in place by Nov. 2 including: enhanced plans for cleaning and sanitizing; plexiglass shields installed on the desks of younger students and in offices; rules for spacing; directional arrows in the hallways for foot traffic; signage inside the buildings and at entrances; hand sanitizer at most doorways; assigned seating plans for common areas such as the gymnasiums, cafeterias, and auditoriums; and a plentiful supply of masks and hand-held thermometers.
Trustee Carol McIntosh advocated daily temperature checks as is done on the job that she just returned to.
“They (members of the medical community) are not recommending daily temperature checks,” Steward said, “as temperature checks can be elevated by warm clothing or a hot car.”
“I would definitely like to see that take place,” responded McIntosh.
“Worst case scenarios”
“The district will continue to plan for worst case scenarios,” said Steward. “We have a toolkit we have to follow put out by the Genesee County Health Department (GCHD). It lays out what you have to do in each and every scenario.”
If two students tested positive for COVID-19 in a classroom, said Steward, that classroom would be shut down and subjected to deep cleaning and sanitizing. The GCHD would be notified within 24 hours of any positive COVID-19 test and contact tracing would begin immediately. A negative test would be required for reentry.
Steward informed the board that positive tests of employees at Potter Elementary and the Administration Building had already forced temporary closure of those buildings for deep cleaning and sanitizing.
Steward advised the board that health metrics will determine the opening or closure of school buildings. “It may be that we really need to shut this down and go back to full remote,” she said.
“It’s never, ever, ever easy,” Steward said, perhaps speaking for an entire community,
EVM staff writer and Education Beat reporter Harold C. Ford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.