Whitmer: K-12 schools will return to in-person learning in fall

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Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Wednesday that state public, charter, parochial and private schools can go back to in-person instruction in the fall and said a plan detailing reopening safety protocols for school districts is forthcoming.

“Our hope is to release an executive order and a robust document that we’re calling Michigan’s Return to School Roadmap on June 30,” Whitmer said at a Wednesday news conference. “That will provide details on what will be required and what will be recommended for our schools.” 

During her update on the COVID-19 crisis, Whitmer said Michigan’s state of emergency — set to expire later this week — will be extended into July. She lifted the stay-home order earlier this month as the state continues to experience a steady decline in COVID-19 cases and deaths. 

Latest totals put Michigan at more than 60,100 COVID-19 cases and 5,790 deaths, but studies show the rate of person-to-person infection is decreasing faster than other states due to the aggressive actions Whitmer took to combat the virus. 

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In May, the governor established a Return to Learn Advisory Council to reopen schools as the state weathers the COVID-19 pandemic. The 25-person group — composed of students, parents, teachers and public health officials — is working on the road map, which will align with Whitmer’s “MI Safe Start Plan.” The council will set minimum health and safety requirements for schools. However, school districts have the option to enact more aggressive protocols if necessary.

Whitmer said it would be hard to pin down precisely what a large reopening could look like for the more than 800 school districts in the state.

“What I can tell you is our intent is to resume in-person instruction, to do so in a way that is safe, but also to make sure that we have very clear guidance as to what the minimum expectations are,” Whitmer said. 

Some schools will be able to reopen more quickly, Whitmer said. Others will need help just to meet minimum expectations and decreasing class sizes is a definite possibility, she added. 

The advisory council is chaired by Tonya Allen,  president and CEO of the Detroit-based Skillman Foundation, a private philanthropy group that advocates for the city’s children. 

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“We understand the implications of returning to school and that it will have an outsized impact on our health as a state, our educational system, as well as our economy,” Allen said. 

Allen said the council needs to weigh how their recommendations affect different geographies, populations and people who live in rural communities or urban cities. Children with special needs, children new to learning English and children whose parents are not equipped to teach at home need to be considered, she added. 

“As the chair and the representative of the whole, I’m very mindful that this is privileged work,” Allen said at the news conference. “With any great privilege, there is great responsibility, like protecting our children, protecting our educators, listening to our parents, bringing forward recommendations that are grounded in science, context, as well as aspiration, ensuring that we preserve for all children in our state to experience a high quality education during this pandemic.”

The state is facing a $6.3 billion budget deficit over the next two fiscal years, as the Advance previously reported. That deficit is expected to leave a hole in K-12 school funding. Michigan’s School Aid Fund could already fall short by $1.2 billion for the current 2020 fiscal year — a hit of $650 per student. 

Whitmer noted budget shortfalls at the news conference and indicated she has had conversations at the federal level to negotiate funding for the state’s school districts.  

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“I have had a number of conversations with people at the federal level who assure me that we are going to get the flexibility and we’ll get some additional resources,” Whitmer said, on the topic of Michigan obtaining more funding for school resources through additional COVID-19 relief legislation. “Precisely what that looks like we won’t know until the U.S. Senate takes action, then until the president [Donald Trump] signs it into law.”

Groups like the Tri-County Alliance for Public Education have expressed concerns about school funding. 

“Priorities now need to quickly turn into action from both state and federal leaders to get schools the resources we need to need to safely and successfully reopen our doors to students this fall,” said Ken Gutman, TCA vice president and superintendent of Walled Lake Schools.

Whitmer said she has discussed budget concerns with other governors of Midwest states, like Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, who are both Republicans. Plans are also complicated by the fact that Michigan pushed back tax collections to July 15 and will not have a Fiscal Year 2021 budget in place by July 1 — the start of schools’ fiscal years. The state’s fiscal year begins Oct. 1. 

“We are going to continue forging ahead on designing what our kids are going to need to return to school,” Whitmer said. “One of the concerns that I have on top of making sure that they’ve got wraparound support is as a mom, as a policymaker, I know that learning loss over the summer is real. And it is more dramatic for kids who are in high poverty situations.”