By Mike Kruzman & Jon King /

Reopening plans are in place for schools, but the heads of Livingston County’s Teacher Education Associations don’t believe the strongest safety measures have been implemented.

A joint statement has been released 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. They claim that a recent survey sent to local teachers reveals that there is little confidence in the Return to Learn Plans that have been approved by area school boards. The presidents believe that most of the schools are not enacting the strongest safeguards set by the governor’s roadmap and staff and students returning to in-person learning will be at an increased risk for contracting COVID-19.

In Howell, the new school year is set to start on Wednesday. At their most recent Board of Education meeting, former teacher Sheila Linhart, who is also the parent of an HPS teacher and grandparent of two HPS students, asked the Board to push back the start date. She said the teachers need more time to prepare. Linhart also pointed at summer bond work that made many of the schools unavailable for teachers. Linhart felt strongly enough about this need to push back the start date that she wrote separate letters to both the Howell Board of Education and Governor Gretchen Whitmer.

Another Howell teacher, Courtney Wilkins, pointed out the similarities between Livingston County and Cherokee County in Georgia in terms of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents. The Georgia schools reopened earlier this month and have seen an outbreak in cases since among students and staff since. Association leadership agrees that infection can and will occur in Livingston County if the current plans are enacted. Acting now, they believe, can help prevent Livingston County from running into the same problems.

One elementary school teacher with HPS commented how she can fit 12 students in classroom with desks 6 feet apart, but has 25 in her incoming class. The association presidents highlighted this social distancing difficulty along with others like elementary students not being required to wear masks at all times.

Several other teachers also expressed support for the district's plan. Among them was Heather Buckingham, a 3rd Grade teacher at Hutchings Elementary School, who expressed her gratitude at the effort's the district had made. “They need to be in school where they are safe. You guys had a huge job. I know you did and I know you thought of every single person’s safety. There is no question in my mind you thought of my safety as a teacher. I know you thought of my children. I know you did. You did what was best. I’m a proud teacher and I’m a proud parent in Howell. I know doing what doing best for kids isn’t always easy, but it’s very brave and I thank you.”

WHMI reached out to HPS for comment, and Public Relations Director Tom Gould sent this response: "Thanks to our community's support when they passed the 2019 Captial and Safety Bond, we have been able to make significant updates in our buildings this summer. This has included new secure entryways at each school, new flooring, new doors, new roofs, and mechanical upgrades. While some of these projects are still wrapping up and did impact access, all teachers have been able to access classrooms now.

We are excited to welcome our students back next week. This week we have had our kindergarten families and new students touring elementary schools and high school and middle school orientation. The atmosphere has been wonderful, and our students seem eager to be back. Our Return to School Plan meets all of the safety requirements and many of the strongly recommended items in the governor's Return to School Road Map. The Roadmap did not mandate elementary students to wear facial covers if the cohort model is used, which is what we are going. It also did not require social distancing. Just like in any year, our class sizes will vary based on enrollment. Additionally, as outlined in our Return to School Plan, there will be times when elementary students will be required to wear a facial covering in the school (common areas, entering and exiting, lunchroom). In the classroom, they may be required to wear them when they are in close proximity to other students and staff."

Association presidents have called on local officials and legislators, namely State Senator Lana Theis and State Representatives Hank Vaupel and Ann Bollin to ensure that when schools reopen they are with the strongest safety recommendations in place. A copy of their release, along with Linhart’s letters can be found below.