For many students, teachers and families across Michigan, Monday is the first day back to in-person learning. Even more students will return to classrooms in the coming weeks. Many districts are still offering in-person instruction as part of a hybrid model where students spend a couple of days at school and a couple of days with virtual learning, allowing schools to more easily enforce social distancing and other safety measures to prevent the spread of the virus.
“We know more about the virus and are better protected from the virus.” — Dr. Michael Rice, State Superintendent
But some people are still concerned about the risk to students and teachers, despite growing evidence that schools have not been a major source of infections and outbreaks when community transmission is low. According to the CDC, “In Michigan and Washington, delivery of in-person instruction was not associated with increased spread of COVID-19 in schools when community transmission was low, but cases in schools did increase at moderate-to-high levels of community transmission. When community transmission was low, there was no association between in-person learning and community spread.”
Of course, there’s no such thing as zero risk of viral spread at schools at this stage of the pandemic. The question is whether the risks outweigh the benefits of in-person learning.
Listen: State Superintendent Dr. Michael Rice and Education Trust-Midwest Director Amber Arellano discuss the return to classrooms.
Dr. Michael Rice is Michigan’s Superintendent of Public Instruction at the Michigan Department of Education. He has served as the state superintendent since August of 2019. He says the risk of spreading the virus in schools is lower now than it has been in months.
“We know more about the virus and are better protected from the virus,” says Rice. “That said, a number of our parents are going to choose to keep their children virtual. That’s completely understandable.”
When asked how many Michigan teachers have been vaccinated at this point, Rice points to a Michigan Education Association (MEA) survey in which more than half of teachers surveyed said they had received at least one dose of a vaccine. But he says the department does not have a current number on how many teachers are vaccinated as of March 1.
Michigan has requested a waiver from normal standardized testing this year due to challenges associated with the pandemic. The Biden administration has said students will need to take some form of assessment, but has indicated that states will have some flexibility in how to do that. Rice says he doesn’t think student should have to take the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress (M-STEP) this year.
“We’re not walking away from the notion of needing to know where our students are. We just believe that we can do that with our benchmark assessments,” he says. “We think M-STEP during a pandemic is a time-sink.”
Amber Arellano is founding executive director of The Education Trust-Midwest, a Michigan-based school research and advocacy organization. She agrees that the health risks of in-person instruction are relatively low at this point.
“Especially for elementary school students, the evidence is that the rate of infection is very low,” says Arellano, who says there will be “a lot of important work in the coming years” to make sure students have what they need to succeed in their education.
“We don’t want kids to be on track to drop out of high school, to make less money over the course of their life,” she says. “We’ve seen this from natural disasters like hurricanes.”
“We want to make sure COVID doesn’t result in losing a generation of students.”