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Whitmer preps school reopening plan, calls GOP 'irresponsible' on emergency power moves

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Wednesday she expects to announce by the end of the month a plan to restart in-person instruction in schools throughout the state, but it is likely to vary by region. 

Whitmer's "Return to School Roadmap" will address health and safety requirements with which schools must comply as well as potential differences depending on region and coronavirus activity. The rules and recommendations will apply to private and public schools and are scheduled to be released June 30.

"I am optimistic that we will return to in-person learning in the fall," Whitmer said. "Schools must make sure to enact strict safety measures to continue protecting educators, students and their families."

But the governor's office added that "Districts, students, staff, and families must be nimble and be prepared to move backwards if there is evidence of community spread of the virus." At a morning news conference, Whitmer said a spike in cases might result in closing a specific school district or a region to in-person instruction, but the reaction would be dictated by local COVID-19 developments.

The Democratic governor said she hopes to move the entire state into Phase 5 of her reopening plan before July 4.

Whitmer is still putting her hopes on getting a federal bailout to help fill a $3.2 billion shortfall in the current budget and a projected $3 billion hole in next year's budget, including substantial revenue losses for K-12 education. Funding for the proposed changes and address shortfalls is paramount to the state's success as schools are reopened, Whitmer said.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer speaks during a press conference, Wednesday, June 17, 2020.

The needs in the coming year will be "serious," she said. 

"As a mom, as a policy maker, I know that learning loss over the summer is real and it is more dramatic for kids that are in higher poverty situations," Whitmer said.

The gubernatorially appointed Return to Learn Advisory Council is working to develop and finalize guidelines for returning to school and members are "extraordinarily anxious" about the responsibility the council has, said Tonya Allen, president of the Skillman Foundation and chair of the advisory council. 

"We want to do right by our state," Allen said Wednesday. "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."

Whitmer noted the safety precautions for schools could include smaller class sizes and will reflect challenges within Michigan's education system.

"We have an older population that is a little more vulnerable in terms of our teaching” staff, the governor said.

Whitmer also took another swipe at the Republican-led Legislature at the news conference without naming it, saying that any attempt to strip her emergency powers "is irresponsible, dangerous and foolish." The GOP-controlled Legislature continues to pursue litigation before the Michigan Court of Appeals that argues she has violated the state Constitution and existing emergency powers laws and seeks to give lawmakers a voice in reopening plans.

"Orders are important, but it's what the people do that makes the difference, and the people of Michigan have taken this seriously," Whitmer said.

She warned against abandoning safety protocols as the number of COVID-19 cases decreases and confirmed she would extend the state of emergency beyond Friday to keep in place several of the current executive orders that were issued under the emergency declaration. 

"What we want to avoid desperately is Michigan to emulate what’s happening in other state where people have dropped their guard," Whitmer said, referring to upticks in infections in states such as Arizona, Florida and Texas. 

When asked how the state would gauge when it had passed the point of the risk of a second wave of COVID-19 cases, Whitmer emphasized the desire to avoid spikes like the ones seen in other states in recent weeks.

The state will be monitoring case numbers, hospital capacity and testing capacity, but there will be no "special number" that will signal the state is free to go back to normal, Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun said.

Dr. Joneigh S. Khaldun, Chief Medical Executive and Chief Deputy Director for Health for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, speaks during a press conference, Wednesday, June 17, 2020.

"Until we have an effective antiviral or a vaccine that's not just available but ... people are getting the vaccine broadly, we’re going to have to live in kind of a different way across the state," Khaldun said. 

The address comes as the state's number of weekly deaths and confirmed coronavirus cases has been falling for many weeks, prompting Whitmer to gradually reopen regions and services across the state that had been shuttered for nearly three months. 

The first two regions of Michigan to see loosened restrictions on restaurants, stores and offices so far have avoided spikes in new COVID-19 cases more than three weeks after the governor allowed the reopening, according to state data. Northern Lower Michigan and the Upper Peninsula, two tourism draws where many businesses were able to restart some operations May 22, are still experiencing far fewer per-capita cases of the virus than the six other economic recovery regions established by the Whitmer administration.

On Tuesday, the state confirmed 18 new deaths bringing the state's total COVID-19-related deaths to 6,034. 244 of that total are probable deaths, or individual who didn't test positive but whose death certificate listed COVID-19 as a possible cause of death.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services also reported Tuesday another 125 new COVID cases and 59 new probable cases. The state's cumulative total is 66,269 COVID cases when counting about 6,080 presumptive cases. 

eleblanc@detroitnews.com