Uncertain season ahead for Michigan Capitol tour service

Annabel Aguiar
Lansing State Journal

Lansing – When a child looks up at the inner dome of the Michigan State Capitol’s rotunda into the oculus showing an ever-starry sky, Capitol Education Director Matt VanAcker knows to expect at least one good “wow” to echo throughout the chamber.

Today, there are fewer wows due to the events of the past year and a half, which have left downtown empty and the Capitol’s trademark tour services unsure of how many students to expect. Online tours and smaller in-person groups have been the standard since early last summer. In-person tours, especially from schools, have fluctuated along with COVID-19 case numbers.

“It’s quite a drop-off from pre-COVID numbers,” said Jerry Benson, an educator who’s worked in the Capitol for 12 years. “It’s sad.”

Visitors explore the rotunda of the Michigan State Capital in Lansing, Michigan on May 8, 2017.

While there were only a few times during the summer visiting months when the service wasn’t giving a tour at all, party sizes have dwindled to five or six people at a time, Benson estimates.

“Everyone talks about the new normal,” VanAcker said. “I’m not sure what that will be for us.”

Currently, there are 210 school groups scheduled for Capitol tours this fall, the Lansing State Journal reports.

Whether the Capitol tour service regains old attendance rates depends on how schools address COVID-19. Field trips make up the bulk of Capitol tour groups, usually as part of 3rd- or 4th-grade curriculum on state history and government. Last year, the Capitol’s in-person tour capability waxed and waned as COVID-19 case numbers fluctuated in schools.

With districts returning to in-person learning this fall, most schools are more focused on classroom safety than field trips, VanAcker said. Meanwhile, every district in Ingham County has reported positive COVID-19 cases in either students or staff, prompting a county-wide mask mandate in school buildings.

“They’re not really thinking about what they’re going to be doing for field trips right now,” VanAcker said.

To make up for the lost traffic, VanAcker and his colleagues began running virtual Capitol tours on Zoom last year, aided in part by building-wide Wi-Fi insisted upon by lawmakers who didn’t want to see service drop. More than a quarter of the Capitol’s almost 1,300 tours since May 2020 were conducted via Zoom.

One advantage to the digital tours is capacity. While a typical in-person school tour would see groups split into smaller parties, a Zoom tour can accommodate up to 150 students at a time.

Those numbers led VanAcker’s team to continue offering the Zoom tours even as vaccines and cautious comfort bring back in-person groups.

The virtual tours are also helpful for schools that can’t access Lansing due to distance or small field trip budgets. The Capitol tour service recently reached out to 205 of Michigan’s more remote districts offering Zoom tours to students who would otherwise only learn about the legislature in their classrooms.

But digital tours can only go so far. The in-person Capitol tours surround visitors with physical reminders of the building’s age and history in a way that’s hard to replicate online: the floor tiles housing 475-million-year-old fossils in Vermont limestone, the portraits of past governors, the opportunity to lie on the floor of the rotunda and gaze upward.

VanAcker is happy digital access means more people can see the Capitol, but he fears a whole generation of students may never get the full in-person experience. He recalled his own first visit to the Capitol at 4 years old, when he was transfixed by the bloodstained Civil War battle flags he’d later have a hand in caring for.

The view of the dome from the floor of the rotunda is a favorite among tourists, VanAcker said.

He hopes COVID-19 caseloads remain manageable enough this school year that the calls he dreads – teachers cancelling visits – don’t come.

“I’m guardedly optimistic,” he said. “Guardedly.”