School Construction in an Unprecedented Time

Article | 04.29.2020

By Carl Baxmeyer, AICP, Manager of Planning

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In this unprecedented time everyone is impacted in many ways. School construction projects are just one example of activities that have been disrupted due to the COVID-19 crisis.

In issuing Executive Order 2020-21, which was effective on March 24, State of Michigan Gov. Whitmer took the needed step of suspending “activities that are not necessary to sustain or protect life.” The order established the State of Michigan’s shelter-in-place standards, which stopped most construction projects. Subsequent orders have served to extend the time of the shelter-in-place standards and clarify some of the provisions.

Executive Order 2020-35 was interpreted by a state-wide law firm as arguably providing for continuation of HVAC projects that facilitate a balanced calendar instructional program for the remainder of 2019-20 and for the 2020-21 school year. They cited the likelihood of such work as being deemed “critical infrastructure.”

Brandywine Community Schools had begun such a project. “We were moving ahead with our HVAC project until the new Executive Order 2020-42 “Stay Home Stay Safe” was issued”, said Ron Bartz, Maintenance Coordinator for the district. “The new order left out that provision,” continued Bartz. “But, we certainly understand and support the need to keep workers safe for these projects that are not essential for health and safety.”

Brian Scieszka, Superintendent/Principal of Glenn Public School echoed similar sentiments, “A wrench in the spoke of the wheel of progress.” While acknowledging that construction timeframes will be affected, he shared, “That is a small price to pay compared to worker safety. We are focusing on our core priority, continuing to provide education for our students through distance learning and delivering teaching packets and food for those in need seven days a week.” 

The only school construction work currently allowed under Governor Whitmer’s executive orders provides for emergency maintenance work necessary to keep facilities safe. Contractors working on already started construction projects can also install and provide measures to keep the site secure. Any work that does proceed under these provisions must be performed after developing a COVID-19 preparedness and response plan, consistent with recommendations in Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19, developed by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration.

School Construction Articles and Links

Here is a sampling of various articles and regulations that have been published on this topic:

Frequently Asked Questions on the State Executive Orders

Q:  Under the Stay Home, Stay Safe EO, can school districts continue to provide food service for students?

A:  Gov. Whitmer is committed to ensuring that Michigan students have access to the food they need during the COVID-19 pandemic. Under the governor's executive order, K-12 school food services are considered critical infrastructure and should continue.

 Q: Is construction allowed under the executive order?

A: Some limited forms of construction are permissible, including construction to maintain and improve roads, bridges, telecommunications infrastructure, and public health infrastructure (such as the creation or expansion of hospitals or other medical facilities to provide or support the provision of necessary care during the emergency). Construction workers may also undertake projects that are necessary to maintain the safety, sanitation, and essential operations of a residence during the emergency, including projects immediately necessary to restore the habitability of a residence.  Any non-emergency maintenance or improvements to residences are not permitted. In addition, a business may designate a construction firm under section 9(b) of the order to provide necessary support to the work of that business’s critical infrastructure workers. 

Construction projects that do not meet these criteria cannot be started or progressed while the order is in effect. This includes any such projects that were already underway at the time the order was issued. For those projects, workers are permitted on site only to carry out “minimum basic operations” under section 4(b) of the order. This work is limited to in-person tasks that are strictly necessary to preserve the current condition of the project while the order is in effect, such as putting in place temporary security and weatherization measures. All other in-person work on the project must cease until the restrictions of the order are lifted and normal operations resume.

Q: How does EO 2020-35 affect school construction and similar capital projects?

A: While EO 2020-21 established the state of Michigan’s shelter-in-place standards, which stopped most construction projects. EO 2020-35 arguably provides some clarity on the types of school construction and capital projects that may be exempt could qualify as exempt from the shelter in place standards. Schools that require certain construction or other capital projects to be completed to permit or further a school’s approved Plan arguably have justification for treating those projects as exempt from shelter-in-place Order. To the limited extent a construction or capital project provides the means of implementing a school’s Plan, including technology system construction, acquisition of technology devices, improvements to food service facilities that further food distribution to eligible pupils, or HVAC projects that facilitate a balanced calendar instructional program for the remainder of 2019-20 and for the 2020-21 school year, such projects have a greater likelihood of being viewed by the State as “critical infrastructure” as that term is used in EO 2020-21.