Lawmakers and parents push Michigan districts to reopen

Empty school hallway and door.
Roughly 6 in 7 Michigan school districts planned to offer some in-person instruction in Feburary, 2021. The remaining districts are facing pressure to open classrooms. (David Zalubowski / AP)

Michigan lawmakers, parents, and doctors argued during a hearing on Tuesday that schools should be open.

With most districts in Michigan now offering some in-person instruction, they aimed their frustrations at the dwindling ranks of school districts that still don’t have a plan to offer some face-to-face instruction.

“Our home is a battleground during the school week,” said Katie Shea, whose children attend school in Ann Arbor. “Our kids are fighting with us every day to turn off their Zoom classes.”

The hearing came one week before March 1, the date Gov. Gretchen Whitmer set as a target for schools to offer some in-person instruction. Whitmer’s reopening push, combined with parallel efforts by President Joe Biden and sharply declining COVID-19 cases in Michigan, have led most schools in Michigan to open classrooms to students at least part-time.

Case counts and deaths have fallen dramatically and researchers have built up more evidence regarding the health risks of in-person learning for students and teachers. At the same time, educators and medical experts have sounded the alarm about the negative impacts of learning from home on children.

Pressure is mounting on  districts that don’t have plans to reopen their classrooms this year, such as Kalamazoo, Ann Arbor, and Plymouth-Canton. In Chippewa Valley, parents are attempting to recall four board members for refusing to support in-person instruction.

In November, a spike in COVID-19 cases prompted many districts to shutter their classrooms. Since then, a growing number of districts have offered in-person instruction. The trend accelerated this month, as the number of districts planning to offer only remote instruction fell by more than half. About 6 in 7 districts, including charter schools, planned to offer some form of in-person instruction this month.

The hearing on Tuesday was arranged by Republican lawmakers who have been pushing since last summer to reopen schools. In recent weeks, GOP leaders have held up federal COVID-19 aid, demanding, among other things, that school districts reopen before receiving the money.

“We’ll have to ask the [Michigan Department of Health and Human Services] or the schools or someone why, if the science is saying it’s safe, we have so many schools that are remote only,” said Sen. Jim Runestad, a Republican from White Lake.

Several doctors — all of them signatories of a recent letter pressing the Ann Arbor district to offer in-person learning — said during the hearing that with the right precautions, open classrooms don’t pose a grave safety risk to students and staff.

“Even at higher levels of transmission it’s possible to have in person learning,” said Emily K. Stoneman, a medical doctor and associate professor of infectious diseases at the University of Michigan.

Stoneman said that the COVID-19 vaccine could help make schools safer, but that it is not necessary for classrooms to reopen.

Some parents still aren’t ready to send their children back to school, a view that was not represented in the hearings Tuesday. When Grand Rapids reopened classrooms in January for the first time in nine months, just half of its families opted to return to in-person instruction. In Detroit, parent surveys have indicated that a substantial minority of parents are still leery of sending their children back to classrooms.

For other parents, though, the need for an in-person learning option is only growing.

Venus Harris said she pulled her 12-year-old son out of the Plymouth-Canton district because his special education plan wasn’t being met. She and her husband, both of whom work full time, are home-schooling him, but they’d prefer to send him back to the classroom.

Her older son has stayed in virtual classes, she said, but is struggling.

“Most of my 15-year-old son’s day is spent sitting in a chair in front of a screen, and he is not absorbing the information that is presented to him,” she said. “We are concerned about how far behind he is and how that will affect his future.”

Any decision about reopening Plymouth-Canton schools is up to the district’s elected school board.

But Ken Horn, a Republican member of the Senate Education Committee, promised that he would work to pressure school boards to offer an in-person learning option.

“I think that this is something that we’re going to be pressing on harder and harder,” he said.

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