By Jon King /

A literal picture has emerged from the first day of in-person instruction at Howell High School with no indication of social distancing.

Wednesday marked the earliest start date in Howell Public School’s history, despite the requests of many teachers and a proposal from the Howell teacher's union to delay the school year until after Labor Day out of concern for the COVID-19 pandemic, which has taken the lives of approximately 172,000 American men, women and children, over 6,600 of them Michigan residents. While virus levels have remained low in Livingston County, teachers and others expressed concern leading up to the start of school that allowing students to return to classrooms presented a danger of spreading the virus. Others said it was important that students get back into classrooms and they felt all reasonable safety precautions were being taken. However, a picture sent to WHMI from inside the high school this morning shows more than a hundred students congregating in the school’s entryway before classes began. While most are wearing masks, at least one student can be seen with no mask on and another with a mask below their nose. And in no way is the traditional six feet of social distancing being observed as students stand in groups speaking directly at each other, just inches apart.

Kristi Craig is President of the Howell Education Association, which represents the district's teachers. She told WHMI that the MI Return To School Roadmap guided the district's plans and was prioritized over teacher and staff input. She said it didn't require social distancing, but only made it 'highly recommended' - "So school districts made plans and they didn't necessarily utilize all of the 'highly recommended' or 'strongly recommended' items and social distancing is one of them and we know from science that is another really important step in virus mitigation. So teachers, who desperately wanted to be back with students under the most safe conditions, preferred to have social distancing as part of our plan. So it doesn't surprise me that you received a picture like that or that there's students not wearing masks because that plan doesn't require the strongest of recommendations unfortunately."

Just last week, the heads of Livingston County’s Teacher Education Associations issued a joint statement that said districts were not enacting the strongest safeguards set by the governor’s roadmap and staff and students returning to in-person learning would be at an increased risk for contracting COVID-19. The statement was signed by the heads of the Howell, Fowlerville, Brighton, Hartland, and Pinckney education associations; along with the Livingston County 8-D Coordinating Council Chair and 2 members of the MEA Board of Directors.

In reaction to the picture, HPS Public Relations Director Tom Gould sent the following response: "We are aware of a photo circulating that shows students not following social distancing and safety protocols at Howell High School. As our students and staff adjust to the new school year and new safety measures, we expected there to be bumps along the way. That is why we adjusted our schedule for the first week of school to allow for three half days. The shorter days will allow students to become comfortable with and understand the new expectations. Additionally, our staff will spend the afternoon reviewing our plans and making any adjustments needed to ensure that we are providing the safest environment possible for both students and staff. As stated, we knew there would be some bumps as we transitioned to in-person learning, however as the CDC recognizes, schools play a critical role in supporting students not only academically, but with social and emotional supports, and supporting families with nutritional needs. We have worked closely with the Livingston County Health Department throughout our planning process and the positive rate for Livingston County remains at the low level."

That sentiment was echoed by many students, including Senior Joel Rushlow, who told WHMI that the area where the picture was taken, known as The Commons, have always been "by far" the most crowded area in the school. "In addition, the article mentioned that there is a student not wearing a mask. When I came into school this morning I was greeted, just like the rest of my peers, by every member of the administrative staff including Officer Banfield" the school's resource officer, and that, "If there were any students not wearing masks it was only for a short period of time." Rushlow says that later in the day all of the teachers shared a live stream of Principal Jason Schrock going over what social distancing procedures they have to follow at school. "One of them was that we could not stop and socialize with other students in the hallways and commons. We have an extra long passing time so that we have time to go outside and talk to our friends there rather than in the hallways." Rushlow concluded that he believes he speaks for most of his peers at Howell High School in saying that, "I felt more than safe at school today and I am happy to be a HHS student."

The district has created a FAQ page with further details.

Howell’s plan is based on state guidelines, which require face coverings for grades six through 12, but not social distancing, which is instead "highly recommended." Craig says that may be more a reflection of the assumption by most parents that the district has placed student safety first. "Schools are part of the heart of our community and teachers are the people that they trust their children to every day and so they look and say 'This must be okay' not possibly realizing that in many ways our school day, as that picture shows, looks like a school day pre-COVID. We're not able to space to social distance without less time in the classroom."

Wednesday, Thursday and Friday are half-days. The first full day of instruction in Howell begins Monday. Only about 15% of the district’s parents have opted for the online learning option being provided.