TRAVERSE CITY — The decision to close area middle and high schools was not a popular one.
Both the Grand Traverse County Health Department and local school districts took some heat after announcing Monday that sixth- through 12th-grade students would shift back to virtual learning for the week. Although the move was criticized, health department officials estimated the four-day pause slowed the COVID-19 surge and saved 500 students from being quarantined.
“People should be really proud of the decision that was made, even though they didn’t like it — myself included,” said Kingsley Area Schools Superintendent Keith Smith. “When you look at the numbers, it truly was the right decision.”
Grand Traverse County and other neighboring county superintendents had an hour-long conference call with officials from the health department and Munson Medical Center to discuss extending the shutdown for another week. Unlike Monday, the health department did not issue a directive and instead said the decision to return to in-person or remain virtual will be left to the individual districts.
Smith doesn’t believe the backlash from the community played a role in the health department’s guidance.
“You get just as much criticism for staying open as you do closing,” Smith said. “You can’t make decisions based on what makes people happy. When you try to make everybody happy, you make nobody happy. You just have to do what you believe is best.”
Although COVID-19 numbers are higher for students in other parts of the state, health officials agreed the case rate in Grand Traverse County does not warrant a shutdown extension. Individuals 0-19 years old now make up a smaller percentage — 16 — of the county’s positive cases so far in April as compared to 21 percent in March.
The Traverse City Area Public Schools Board of Education will meet Saturday at 5:30 p.m. to decide the district’s plan of action for next week.
“Each local district being able to analyze their data and make decisions is what many have advocated for,” said TCAPS Superintendent John VanWagoner.
Health officials and area superintendents were already set to revisit the Monday decision on Friday, but Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s morning press conference added another wrinkle to the discussion.
Whitmer asked all high schools to voluntarily go virtual for the next two weeks in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh S. Khaldun recommended the move and encouraged school districts to enroll in the MDHHS testing program if they are going to remain open to in-person instruction.
“We all need to go above and beyond the rules we already have in place,” Whitmer said.
Michigan Department of Education Superintendent Michael Rice supported Whitmer’s request and said going virtual for two week will help “the common good of our state and the health of our residents.”
“Michigan educators, students and families have risen to the challenge over the past year. I am confident they will continue to do what is needed to help save lives as we keep fighting the pandemic,” Rice said.
Lisa Peacock, health officer with the Benzie-Leelanau Health Department, said data supports staying open for in-person teaching and learning.
“We’re watching that really carefully. We review the data every day,” she said. “If the situation changes, ... we will make adjustments to that plan.”
Whitmer made it clear that the guidance to go virtual was not an order, mandate or requirement. However, some educators were still confused by the difference in language between the governor and Khaldun.
“It’s that kind of incongruousness where they do that that can really make it interesting for us,” Glen Lake Community Schools Superintendent Jon Hoover said, adding that his district will remain open to face-to-face education.
Hoover said he spoke with Benzie-Leelanau Health Department Director of Personal Health Michelle Klein as well as his lead district nurse in making the decision. Both agreed staying open could be done safely.
“I even went on the PA and said to the kids, ‘Hey gang, we’ll see you Monday,’” Hoover said.
Suttons Bay Superintendent Casey Petz said he appreciated that Whitmer did not issue a mandate or an order.
“For some districts, (staying closed) is the right choice. If you’ve got widespread outbreak or massive quarantine issues or a level of anxiety that interferes with education, it’s definitely the right choice,” Petz said. “But I know that not many superintendents or families want that choice taken from them.”
Most districts are leaning toward the brick-and-mortar option.
Officials from Northwest Education Services, Grand Traverse Area Catholic Schools, Traverse City Christian, Grand Traverse Academy, Buckley, Kalkaska, Benzie Central, Kingsley and Frankfort indicated they would be in person come Monday.
Smith said he still has to discuss the decision with his board of education, but he said he would be surprised if they stay virtual for another week.
The decision wasn’t an easy one for Robert Walker, superintendent of the Greenspire School. Although students at the charter school will be back in class Monday, Walker was one of the few superintendents to voice concerns about going back in person.
“This has concerned me since the first day of school,” Walker said. “This is a really difficult time, but it really has to be left up to each individual district and even each individual school within a district.”