Schools closed until April 5 due to coronavirus concerns

Editor’s Note: This post has been updated to include newly released information.

SOUTHWEST MICHIGAN — Around 11 p.m. Thursday, local school administrators received news that left them scrambling to make plans and keep parents informed about student health Friday morning.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced that all K-12 schools would be closed Monday through April 5 to slow the spread of COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus. All extracurricular actives, including sports and field trips, have also been canceled until further notice.

“This we feel is a necessary step to protect kids and teachers and families and our overall public health,” Whitmer said in her address Thursday. “I know this will be a tough time for our parents and educators, and I urge businesses to do everything that they can to support employees at this time.”

This statewide closure does not impact pre-schools, daycares, or Head Start programs at this time. However, these organizations and programs can make individualized closure decisions as needed.

As of Friday morning, 12 people in the state of Michigan have tested positive for the virus, and cases have been confirmed in St. Joseph County, Indiana, which borders Berrien and Cass counties.

Though local school districts — which include Niles Community Schools, Brandywine Community, Edwardsburg Public Schools, Cassopolis Public Schools, Buchanan Community Schools and Dowagiac Union Schools — had been preparing for potential closures related to the coronavirus, administrators said the late-night announcement left them with short notice to plan and make arrangements for alternative learning models.

“It’s been kind of a crazy morning. It’s been a little bit of challenge,” said Jim Knoll, superintendent of Edwardsburg Public Schools. “We were as prepared as we could have been with the information we had going in. We knew there was a potential for a closing. Our staff and community have been preparing, and our number one goal is that we want to make sure our staff and students are healthy, and that is what we have been preparing for.”

Dowagiac Superintendent Jonathan Whan said he and other district administrators are currently meeting to look at all options to ensure students and staff are taken care of and kept healthy during the three-week closure.

“We had been looking at the what-ifs — what if we had to close — but we hadn’t expected to get a notice at 11 p.m. Thursday that we would have to be closed Monday,” Whan said. “We had hoped we wouldn’t have to close, but we have to do our best to continue to provide for our students and our communities.”

Both Dowagiac and Edwardsburg superintendents said many things are still up in the air as of Friday, and circumstances are changing on a minute-by-minute basis. Despite this, they are working to find solutions that will allow them to continue offering free and reduced lunches, with Whan saying Dowagiac will be using its summer Meet Up and Eat Up program as a base model.

Both also said their districts are considering alternative learning options, but understand that they cannot guarantee their students have access to the internet or computers. According to the American Community Survey, 26 percent of Cass County households do not have internet access.

In a letter sent to parents, Edwardsburg schools noted that until further instructions come from the Michigan Department of Education, EPS will not be providing an online format to replace face to face instruction. Knoll said Edwardsburg Public Schools were not given enough time or resources to implement online curriculum or to provide equitable access to all students.

However, in a letter sent to Dowagiac parents, Dowagiac Union Schools officials wrote that students were sent home Friday with books, activities and login information that is intended to provide materials and access to software to support their learning. Additional learning packets will be available next week.

Administration offices will be open throughout the closure, and both Knoll and Whan said their districts would be sending out updates to parents as available. In Edwardsburg, school offices will remain open Monday and Tuesday to allow parents to pick up any items, such as medications, students may have left that at school.

Though the Edwardsburg and Dowagiac school districts may have been surprised by Thursday’s closure announcement, Whan and Knoll said they are taking it seriously to ensure the health of their students and staff. They added that they are recommending that all follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations to frequently wash hands, disinfect surfaces, avoid large gatherings and avoid touching the face to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.

“It is very important that we all stay calm and stay smart about our hygiene and social distancing,” Whan said. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Buchanan, Brandywine, Cassopolis and Niles issued public statements on school closures amid the coronavirus. All schools said they are working to continue food service during the closures and are committed to maintaining student health, while figuring out next steps.

Most schools in the area will not reopen until April 13 due to spring break.

A previously scheduled public hearing for Niles Community Schools to discuss a pre-labor day start has been postponed until further notice. Brandywine schools announced that students were sent home with materials to continue curriculum work over the mandated closure. 

Several schools noted that Comcast is offering a special package to low-income families without internet access at this time in the hopes it would help students complete required coursework.

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