LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was unreceptive Tuesday to Republican-passed legislation that would require public schools to offer in-person instruction to students in kindergarten through fifth grade amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The Democratic governor’s comments came after several districts announced they would start the academic year solely with distance learning regardless of whether Whitmer moves the rest of Michigan into phase five of her reopening plan. Under phase four, in-person classes are permitted. Schools are supposed to open for in-person instruction under phase five — which currently includes only northern counties — with fewer required safety protocols.
The governor said parts of the state House plan pending in the Senate have “merit,” but “other pieces are modeled after the DeVos plan to force schools to put kids back in the classroom. We’re going to be focused on the science.”
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has said students should be in the classroom every day if their families want and that any alternative would fail students and taxpayers. President Donald Trump threatened to try to withhold federal funding for schools that do not resume in-person classes, but last week he softened his stance and acknowledged that some schools may need to delay their reopening this fall.
“We can’t dictate for all 800 districts precisely what a day looks like,” said Whitmer, saying debate must happen at the local level.
But Gideon D’Assandro, spokesman for Republican House Speaker Lee Chatfield of Levering, said in-person instruction “has strong developmental benefits for young children that are important. It is also especially important at the beginning of a new school year to help develop a connection with their teachers.”
State superintendent Michael Rice told a legislative committee Tuesday he was concerned that officials in districts offering only distance learning have suggested conditions may improve to later reopen buildings when in reality COVID-19 outbreaks will surge in the flu season and during a likely second wave of cases.
“What I hear is the best opportunity for in-person instruction is at the beginning of a school year, not deeper into a school year,” he said. “I’m hopeful … that we will maximize the opportunity for in-person instruction in our state, recognizing it is a pandemic. In a pandemic, public health does take precedence over public education.”
Whitmer again called for a national mask-wearing mandate and criticized the Republican-led U.S. Senate for proposing no new funding for states and cities in the next round of relief aid. Michigan is facing a multibillion-dollar hole in the budget year that starts in October, and schools could begin instruction without knowing their state funding.
Budget director Chris Kolb denounced the Senate proposal as “woefully lacking,” while Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Sandy Baruah said every major business organization in the state has urged the congressional delegation to include additional assistance for state and local governments.
“This is not a political or regional perspective,” Baruah said.
The state health department on Tuesday reported 16 additional deaths related to COVID-19, including 11 that occurred weeks or days earlier, bringing the total of confirmed and probable deaths to 6,421.
Michigan’s seven-day average of cases was about 682, which was an increase of 121 from two weeks earlier. Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive, said the relative plateau in cases after a sharper rise, combined with steady, low death and hospitalization rates, are “all very good signs.”
The Grand Rapids region, the only area deemed “high risk” in recent weeks, was upgraded to “medium-high risk” on Tuesday. Khaldun expressed concern, however, that a higher percentage of people continue to test positive for the virus.
Local health departments last week identified 78 new outbreaks, defined as when tracers determine that a close contact of an infected person also is infected. Nearly one-third were associated with nursing homes or other adult-care facilities and about one-fifth were associated with social gatherings. Workplaces accounted for 10%, while 9% were associated with restaurants.
The departments were able to identity a source of infection for roughly one-third of new cases but not the remaining two-thirds, Khaldun said.
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