Virtual only schools should return to classrooms, Whitmer says

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said in an interview Thursday that Michigan school districts that are currently offering only virtual instruction should return students to classrooms for in-person learning.

“98% of our districts in Michigan are in person right now," Whitmer said during an appearance on WDET's "Detroit Today." "We’ve got some big ones that are not. I want to work with those districts to help support them so they can get kids back in school."

The governor made the comments the day after her fourth State of the State address, in which she said students "belong in schools." The subject has become the topic of intense political debate with Republicans attempting to tie school closures to Whitmer as she seeks reelection.

This school year, Whitmer has generally left decisions on whether to require masks in classrooms and whether to hold in-person instruction to individual districts. The wide majority of Michigan schools are currently offering in-person instruction, but some have gone online only in recent weeks amid spikes in COVID-19 infections, spurred by the contagious omicron variant.

Both the Detroit Public Schools Community District and Flint Community Schools have gone online only and indicated they plan to return to in-person learning Jan. 31. Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said last week, the city’s infection rate was declining but was still high at 25%.

"Based on the current trend we will be between 10% to 20% by Jan. 31, which is where we believe it will be safer and easier to manage inevitable positive cases," Vitti said.

During her State of the State address on Wednesday, Whitmer said remote learning is "not as fulfilling or conducive to a child’s growth."

"In-person learning is critical to social development and mental health," she said during the speech. "That’s why we will do everything we can to keep kids in the classroom."

In the interview Thursday, "Detroit Today" host Stephen Henderson asked the governor if she was calling on districts using virtual only instruction to bring children back to the classroom. Whitmer responded, "Yes."

She also referenced that her upcoming budget proposal for public education would bring the "largest state investment" in Michigan history.

"This is how we give districts the tools they need to lower class sizes, to wrap the students with support, whether it's counselors or it's social workers, to help kids get back on track," Whitmer said.

Republican lawmakers and gubernatorial candidates have been calling on Whitmer to do more to return all students to in-person learning. On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said his caucus will prioritize in-person education this year.

“Kids need to be in school, not in front of computers," Shirkey said. "Teachers know this. Parents know this. Kids know this.”

"We will renew our effort to give parents … the tools and resources they need to work with teachers and make the individual education decisions for their children," he added at another point.

School officials have connected the decisions to go virtual to staffing problems and a state law that ties funding to a requirement that 75% of students be in attendance.

Earlier in the pandemic, before vaccines became widely available, larger numbers of Michigan school districts were offering only virtual instruction, including for much of the 2020-21 school year.

Staff Writer Jennifer Chambers contributed.