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GOP-controlled Michigan House backs bills to reopen schools for younger students

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Michigan House narrowly approved Wednesday night Republican lawmakers' plan for reopening schools during the COVID-19 pandemic, including a policy that would ensure districts offer in-person instruction for younger students.

The wide-ranging four-bill package, which clashes with elements of Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's reopening plan, drew opposition from Democratic lawmakers with one of the bills passing in a 55-49 vote with five of the 109 members absent.

"Districts will do what they need to do in order to make schools safe for kids," argued Rep. Pamela Hornberger, R-Chesterfield Township, chairwoman of the House Education Committee.

Michigan State Rep. Pamela Hornberger, R-Chesterfield Township

But Democratic lawmakers said the bills benefited cyber schools by loosening restrictions on online offerings and left teachers — some of whom are concerned about returning to the classroom during a pandemic — out of the discussion.

"They were left behind," said Rep. Matt Koleszar, D-Plymouth, of teachers.

The bills would establish so-called "electronic learning days" that would be exempt from a funding requirement that schools have 75% attendance. They would also set up "extended continuity of learning" plans for districts.

Under the bills, districts' plans would have to ensure that students are provided with "equitable access to technology" and at least offer in-person instruction to students enrolled in kindergarten through the fifth grade.

Districts operating under the plans would have to make their "best effort" to obtain and provide "reasonable" protective barriers, masks and gloves requested by parents and teachers.

Republicans touted the package as providing options for parents and students who face uncertainty during the pandemic with the school year set to begin in about seven weeks. Rep. Steve Johnson, R-Wayland, said the bills would give "parents a plan and some certainty."

"Every student, every  parent, every family is in a unique position and we must respect that," Johnson said.

But Democrats ripped the 90-page package, which they argued used the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to help cyber schools and for-profit education companies while potentially putting students and teachers at risk.

Rep. Sheryl Kennedy, D-Davison, called it "a mess" and an "infomercial" for virtual learning providers.

She noted that the bills allow districts to set up "electronic learn day" programs beginning with the 2021-2022 school year, which isn't the upcoming school year.

"The package that came before us today utterly fails to provide any concrete support for Michigan’s students and teachers during this crisis — it’s merely another partisan power grab to privatize public education masquerading as a ‘plan,'" Kennedy said in a statement after the votes.

FILE - The Michigan House narrowly approved Wednesday night Republican lawmakers' plan for reopening schools during the COVID-19 pandemic, including a policy that would ensure districts offer in-person instruction for younger students.

In committee testimony, a group of school organizations said the bills would "permit unlimited virtual dual enrollment and expand dual enrollment to students in any grade without regard to any of the safeguards currently in place."

The group, which included the Michigan Association of School Boards and the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators, said the requirement of offering in-person instruction for young students conflicts with "the recommendations of medical experts."

Hornberger denied the argument that the bills were a giveaway to cyber schools. She said the "electronic learning day" program was meant to help in future situations when there are snow days or another pandemic.

Republicans in the Senate and House introduced their "Return to Learn" plan in June. The four bills now have to go the Michigan Senate.

Whitmer, the Democratic governor who could eventually veto the GOP-backed bills, has released her own reopening plan that would allow for in-person instruction if Michigan remains in Phase 4 of the administration's economic reopening plan.

If Michigan falls back to Phase 3, schools wouldn't have in-person instruction to start the year. The governor has said Michigan needs to change the current trajectory of new COVID-19 cases in order to have in-person instruction this fall.

cmauger@detroitnews.com