LANSING, Mich. — After months of physical closure due to the pandemic, Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced over a week ago that schools may reopen in the fall. On Tuesday, she released a road map for what that return will look like.
Whitmer formed the Return to Schools Advisory Council, which is comprised of teachers, students, administrators and public health professionals to help her determine the safest path to bringing students back into schools.
The governor said she worked alongside the council to design the MI Safe Schools Return to School Roadmap released on June 30, which is based around the six MI Safe Start phases. Currently, most of the Lower Peninsula is in phase 4 with hopes of being in phase 5 by the time school starts.
But, the governor's plan asks schools to prepare for varying public health scenarios. For example, if a region is rolled back to phase 1-3, schools in that area will not return to in-person learning in the fall. Whitmer said in a statement about the plan that she is optimistic that will not be the case.
"Thanks to our aggressive action against this virus, the teachers who have found creative ways to reach their students, and the heroes on the front lines, I am optimistic that we will return to in-person learning in the fall," Whitmer said.
The plan is made up of required, strongly recommended and recommended protocols for each of those scenarios with the least stringent protocols in place for in the post-pandemic phase, or phase 6. The state gives guidance on personal protection equipment, hygiene, cleaning protocols and athletics for schools in phases 1-3, 4 and 5-6.
“The most important thing we can do as we prepare to reopen school buildings in the fall is closely examine the data and remain vigilant in our steps to fight this virus,” said MDHHS Chief Deputy for Health and Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun in a statement.
Whitmer also signed an executive order that requires school districts to adopt a COVID-19 Preparedness and Response Plan in response to this road map. On Monday, state leaders announced a budget agreement that provided $256 million in federal coronavirus relief dollars to support school districts as they implement these plans. Both Whitmer and republican leaders have called on the federal government to provide additional assistance to offset the shortcomings caused by the pandemic.
Schools first closed in mid-March at the first confirmation of cases in the state. The physical closure of school buildings was extended as cases and deaths mounted statewide. The duration of the semester was carried out through distanced learning for all K-12 students.
There are currently 63,870 coronavirus cases in the state and 5,947 people have died. There were 373 new cases confirmed Tuesday, which is a slight uptick in a general downward trend of cases. During an afternoon press conference, Khaldun and Whitmer said cases are creeping back up in parts of the state.
"After three months of hard work and real sacrifice to bend the curve and protect families from this virus, we have seen preventable spread in areas across our state. We can't let our guard down. We can and we must get this under control," Whitmer said.
Khaldun noted Lansing and Grand Rapids as two cities where cases are rising at a concerning rate.
Last week, Republican lawmakers released their own proposed plan for the return to the school, which gave heavy discretion to local health departments and school districts. It also included using federal dollars to offset shortfalls, which ended up being part of the bi-partisan budget agreement announced on Monday.
State Superintendent Dr. Michael Rice said in a statement he was encouraged by the plan, but he also made a call for additional federal assistance.
“Congress needs to approve additional federal aid so that children’s education is not harmed in a pandemic. This additional federal aid needs to include not simply funding to make up for lost state aid in the pandemic, but also funding to address personal protection equipment and catch-up learning in the pandemic," said Rice.
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