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Whitmer gives $65M in fed aid for schools affected by COVID-19 pandemic

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced Wednesday $65 million in additional federal coronavirus relief funds for Michigan school districts "most significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic."

The money will help schools to bridge the "digital divide" that's developed as students attempt to learn remotely, referring to students who don't have access to the internet. The money will be divided based on school numbers of economically disadvantaged students, English language learners and special needs students, Whitmer said in a Wednesday press conference.

 “This is a good start, but we still need the federal government to work together on a bipartisan recovery package to support all Michigan students and educators, as well as state governments, families, and small businesses," Whitmer said in a statement.

About $60 million will go to school districts in which 50% of students are "economically disadvantaged" in an effort to reverse learning loss, improve remote access to learning, and boost health and safety needs. 

Another $5.4 million will help to resolve problem areas addressed in unsuccessful amendments proposed by House Democrats last week to a bipartisan education package.

Among the spending priorities are $1.5 million to prop up educational shows on public television, $1.5 million to support social-emotional learning and mental health, $1.4 million to implement best teaching practices and training for digital instruction, and $1 million to boost a program focused on early intervention among infants and toddlers. 

"Our schools are taking on an enormous challenge this year, and they need as much support as they can get to ensure that they are able to take it on and succeed," said House Minority Leader Christine Greig, D-Farminton Hills. 

The announcement came after Michigan's governor joined other Democratic governors in seven states Wednesday to create a Coalition of Governors to Protect Voting Right and Voter Access meant to push back against changes in the United States Postal Service. 

The coalition pledges to carry out a lawful election Nov. 3; ensure the right to vote is safe, secure and accessible; communicate the potential delay of mail-in ballots; investigate allegations of election fraud; and make sure individuals in the electoral college vote for the person for whom they pledged to vote.

“We have already had two historic, successful elections this year while battling the COVID-19 pandemic," Whitmer said in a statement. "We are prepared to utilize what we have learned to maximize safety, while protecting every Michigander’s right to vote and access to the ballot." 

The other states in the coalition are California, Oregon, Wisconsin, New Jersey, North Carolina, Nevada and Minnesota.

The development comes after Michigan union leaders within the U.S. Postal Service sounded alarms about Postal Service policy changes that one official described as a "conscious decision to delay mail."

The removal of at least eight mail sorting machines in Detroit, Pontiac and Grand Rapids facilities was causing the loss of sorting more than 270,000 pieces of mail per hour, according to union officials from around the state. The planned removal of another seven machines in West Michigan and Pontiac would have reduced mail sorting capability by another 200,000 or more pieces of mail per hour, union officials said. 

The warnings came as a national controversy ignited over funding for the Postal Service and fears President Donald Trump is seeking to hobble the agency's ability to process what is likely to be a huge volume of mail-in ballots. Trump has publicly voiced concerns about mail-in voting this fall as he seeks reelection, and Democrats have responded with legislation and lawsuits in a bid to blunt Postal Service cuts.

In a bid to calm the worries, the U.S. Postal Service on Tuesday suspended the operational changes, such as removing mail processing equipment, until after the November election, said Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, who took his job in June. Many of the criticized moves were the result of longstanding "efforts that predate my arrival at the Postal Service," he said in a Tuesday statement.

The U.S. Postal Service lost $6.7 billion in the first half of the year as the service reported continued drops in first-class and business mail that weren't offset by an over-50% increase in package deliveries. 

DeJoy is scheduled to answer questions about his moves when he testifies Friday before the Senate Homeland Security committee, where ranking Democrat Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township has criticized his changes. He is also set to face the U.S. House Oversight Committee on Monday.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel joined 13 other states Tuesday in a lawsuit that argues the Postal Service changes are unlawful and threaten the timely delivery of mail. Whitmer and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson supported the lawsuit.

Such operational shifts that affect nationwide mail service have to be submitted to the Postal Regulatory Commission and allow for public comment, Nessel's office said.

Some Republicans have accused House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, and other Democrats of politicizing an institution that is hemorrhaging billions of dollars and needs reform. 

U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, said Monday that White House officials have already said they’re looking at $10 billion, “if not even more,” in additional funding to boost the Postal Service. The situation doesn’t constitute the type of emergency Pelosi is “trying to make this out to be," he said.  

“This is not about policy,” Huizenga said of the House speaker. “This is all about politics.”

eleblanc@detroitnews.com