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Whitmer: Michigan schools can reopen safely with COVID-19 precautions next week

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer provides a COVID-19 update on Feb. 24.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer provides a COVID-19 update on Feb. 24.(WLUC)
Published: Feb. 24, 2021 at 2:48 PM EST
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LANSING, Mich. (WJRT) - Monday is Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s goal of having all schools in Michigan offer some level of in-person learning.

Whitmer announced the voluntary goal in January for all Michigan schools to offer in-person learning at least part-time by March 1. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services simultaneously released a set of guidelines for schools to reopen safely.

Whitmer said the goal nearly will be met with about 97% of schools planning to reopen for students at least part-time by Monday. She believes most of the remaining 3% of schools are determining tentative start dates for in-person learning soon after March 1.

During a press conference Wednesday, Whitmer said in-person learning can be done safely with proper COVID-19 precautions in place. Those include wearing face coverings, maintaining proper social distancing and washing hands frequently.

“These simple precautions can protect all Michiganders and our kids when they go back to school,” Whitmer said.

She said data over the past year shows schools are not a significant source of large COVID-19 outbreaks among young children. Craig Carmoney, superintendent of Meridian Public Schools in Midland County, said no COVID-19 outbreaks have been reported in his school facilities since they reopened to students last fall.

Whitmer said in-person learning is important:

  • To provide children with peer-to-peer interaction as they continue developing socially.
  • To provide vulnerable children an adequate education.
  • To provide vision or hearing tests.
  • To help staff watch for signs of child abuse.
  • To keep parents in the workforce.

“Schools are cornerstones of healthy, vibrant communities,” Whitmer said.

She pointed out that some parents -- mostly mothers -- have left the workforce this year to stay home and care for their children learning remotely. While schools have been closed to in-person learning, Whitmer said equity gaps are widening for students who face special challenges like a disability or trying to learn English as non-native speakers.

Feeding children also has been more difficult when they don’t regularly attend school in-person. Whitmer said various school meal pickup programs have been successful around the state, but they are not sustainable long-term.

She also called on the Republican-led Michigan Legislature to approve spending the state’s $5 billion share of federal COVID-19 relief funding. Whitmer said $1.7 billion of that money is earmarked for schools to pay for supplies and coronavirus test kits necessary for in-person learning.

Michigan is using 3 million to 4 million rapid antigen COVID-19 test kits every month for schools and nursing homes, but the state’s supply is dwindling. Whitmer is concerned her administration may run out of tests “in the coming weeks” if the Legislature doesn’t approve spending money to buy more.

Whitmer proposed the $5.6 billion MI COVID Recovery plan more than a month ago, which calls for spending all of Michigan’s federal relief funds and about $500 million in state funds on schools, COVID-19 vaccinations and economic recovery. She said her plan is necessary for schools to reopen.

“I know that there’s been a lot of people saying this has been the goal. But in order to reach the goal we’ve got to get that COVID recovery plan done,” Whitmer said.

The Michigan House passed a $3.5 billion COVID-19 relief plan earlier this month, which calls for spending some of the federal relief money and holding some in reserve. The plan also is contingent on Whitmer and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services giving up authority to close schools for COVID-19.

The Michigan Senate Republican Caucus also proposed a $2 billion plan to spend some federal COVID-19 relief money and hold more in reserve while closely monitoring how Whitmer’s administration spends it.

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