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Schools scramble, students mourn after Whitmer cancels school year

News Photo by Julie Riddle Volunteers offer fresh produce and other food to Posen-area residents at a drive-thru food pantry on Thursday at the Posen Consolidated Schools building. Donated by the Michigan Food Bank, the food is delivered to elderly and immune-compromised families in the community.

ALPENA — Northeast Michigan school officials will work over the next two weeks to develop a plan for how students will learn and seniors will graduate after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Thursday closed schools for the rest of the academic year.

To help slow the spread of the coronavirus, Whitmer ordered schools closed March 16 until April 13. On Thursday, however, Whitmer ordered schools not to reopen and prohibited extracurricular activities for the rest of the school year. She gave schools until April 28 to come up with a plan for distance learning and promised seniors will graduate and students will advance to the next grade if they were on track to do so.

Whitmer’s announcement was expected, but left Northeast Michigan schools scrambling to figure out how all their kids can keep learning in a region where many families lack internet access.

“We’re expecting a rubric to come out today that will specify what we should be looking for in a plan, and then we’ll immediately get that out to the local districts,” Scott Reynolds, superintendent of the Alpena-Montmorency-Alcona Educational Service District, said. “We as an ESD need to be ready April 8 to start evaluating those plans, and we have a team ready to start that process. We recognize there aren’t going to be any perfect plans and there will be gaps.”

The decision also left many kids, especially high school seniors, heartbroken about losing a whole chapter of their lives.

News Photo by Meakalia Previch-Liu Kaylee Pyscher, a sophomore at Alpena High School, and Darrian Pyscher, a junior, look at their school grades online using their Chromebook on Thursday.

“We’ve been going to school for 13 years, with the end goal of walking across the stage to get our diploma, and now we don’t know if we’ll be able to do that,” Harrison Daniels, a senior at Rogers City High School, said. “We don’t get to finish the last chapter of our high school career, and the situation is unfortunate.”

As of Thursday afternoon, there were zero reported cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in Alpena, Presque Isle, Montmorency, or Alcona counties.

Health officials said 146 tests have been submitted to the state from Alpena, Presque Isle, Montmorency, Alcona, and Cheboygan counties, and 97 negative results have been received. Cheboygan County has four confirmed cases. District Health Department No. 4 confirmed Thursday a Cheboygan County man had died at McLaren Northern Michigan in Petoskey.

Nearly 11,000 cases and more than 400 deaths have been reported statewide.

The virus and related shutdowns continued to affect the region:

* Since Whitmer’s order closing restaurant dining rooms, gyms, theaters and more last month, unemployment filings have tripled in Alpena County, with 302 filed the week ending March 14 and 925 submitted last week, according to the state. In Alcona, Montmorency, and Presque Isle counties, unemployment filings increased by 64% to 84% in the past two weeks.

* The Alpena Home Depot announced Thursday it will allow no more than 100 customers in its store at one time.

‘AVOID HUGE LEARNING GAPS’

Some things are known already.

Schools have been handing out food since March 16. That will continue, and Alpena Public Schools plans to hand out Chromebooks to kids who need them at food distribution locations as soon as next week, Alpena Superintendent John VanWagoner said.

Many APS students already have school-issued laptops.

Students won’t be penalized if they can’t participate in online classes. About 10% of kids in Alpena, 14% in Alcona and Presque Isle Counties, and 16% in Montmorency County lack internet access, the Michigan League for Public Policy says.

Current seniors who were not maintaining a passing grade on March 16 will get the opportunity to bring their grades up, VanWagoner said.

Students who missed out on taking the SAT and PSAT can take it in the fall. The state will pay for those test costs, Alcona Community Schools said Thursday.

Alcona schools will continue to offer mental health services to students.

Whitmer’s order specifies that district facilities can be used by school employees and contractors to facilitate learning at a distance. School staff will be paid for the remainder of the school year.

VanWagoner said some details still have to be worked out over the next two weeks.

“We have an unprecedented situation in front of us as educators,” VanWagoner said. “I feel obligated to provide as much instruction to our students as we can to avoid huge learning gaps for our students and families as they enter the 2020-21 school year and beyond.”

A MAJOR LOSS

Daniels, the Rogers City High senior, said he is on track to graduate. However, he would have liked to finish the welding program at his school to assist him in the line of work he wants to pursue.

Alpena High School sophomore Kaylee Pyscher said she has been using her email and Google Classroom to communicate with teachers. Pyscher said she is looking forward to next school year, but feels the school environment will be significantly different.

“They might start cleaning down a lot more than they normally do now, and I think that’s really important,” Pyscher said.

Kaylee’s brother, Darrian, a junior, said he’s disappointed he won’t be able to see school friends, particularly seniors graduating this year.

The Pyscher siblings’ mother, Toni Schmidt, said the closure isn’t just hard on the seniors, but the juniors are missing out on taking their SATs, too, and other underclassmen are missing out on different events and in-class work.

“You can’t really apply to college without your SAT scores, that’s one of the first things they look at,” Schmidt said. “I feel like the kids are going to be losing out. They were just getting into their second semester in school, and they’re going to miss out on half of that education.”

Senior year is a big deal, said Kelly Barbato, parent of a senior at Alcona schools.

Barbato said her son is lucky. He only has one online class to take to graduate.

“There were no goodbyes, there wasn’t any opportunity to say goodbye to friends, your favorite teacher, or anything,” Barbato said. “It’s sad, but we have to stay home for the sake of everyone.”

News staff writer Julie Riddle contributed to this report.

Meakalia Previch-Liu can be reached at 989-358-5680 or mprevich-liu@thealpenanews.com.

Health department tele-town hall today

District Health Departments No. 2 and No. 4 will host tele-town halls today with lawmakers to provide information about the state and local response to the coronavirus pandemic.

∫ 10:45 a.m.: Residents of Alpena, Cheboygan, Montmorency, and Presque Isle counties can call 855-756-7520, ext. 58710#; state Reps. Sue Allor, R-Wolverine, and Triston Cole, R-Mancelsona, will join the call

∫ 11:30 a.m.: Residents of Alcona, Iosco, Ogemaw, and Oscoda counties can call 855-756-7520, ext. 58734#; Allor, Cole, Rep. Daire Rendon, R-Lake City, and state Sen. Jim Stamas, R-Midland, will join the call.

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