Whitmer says in-person learning option is 'crucial' as more schools reopen

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer escalated her push Wednesday to get all Michigan school districts to offer in-person instruction, calling it "crucial" and contending remote-only learning would hamstring the state's economy.

The Democratic governor's renewed focus, a string of recent decisions by some districts to set reopening dates and declining COVID-19 infection races signal the growing momentum for returning students to classrooms nearly a year into the pandemic.

"Working families have been spread too thin over the past year, often taking on the roles of parent, teacher and employee all at the same time," Whitmer said during a press conference Wednesday. "This is not sustainable.”

On Jan. 8, the Democratic governor called for districts to at least provide an in-person learning option by March 1. However, there hasn't been a requirement, and some large districts have resisted.

Whitmer said Wednesday that 83% of Michigan's more than 800 districts were now offering some in-person learning. About 97% of traditional districts will provide some level of in-person learning to students by March 1, according to state officials.

With proper precautions, resources and guidelines, schools can mitigate the risk of COVID-19 and minimize its spread, Whitmer said.

"For young children, especially, face-to-face learning is critical," Whitmer said. "While some students and families have been successful in distanced learning, far too many have struggled."

About 16% of the state's districts primarily offered virtual instruction only this school year through January, according to plans filed each month with the Michigan Department of Education. The remote-learning districts averaged significantly higher rates of minority students and economically disadvantaged students than the state, according to a Detroit News analysis.

In February, 83% of school districts planned to offer some amount of in-person instruction, according to a report from the Michigan State University Education Policy Innovation Collaborative. Sixty-five percent of districts planned to offer fully in-person instruction and 18% planned to offer hybrid instruction, the report said.

Kalamazoo Public Schools is among the districts not bringing students back into the classroom in person for the rest of the school year, announcing earlier this month that it will remain 100% virtual.

Other districts, though, are beginning to reverse course, including Dearborn Public Schools. Earlier this month, officials in the Wayne County district had been looking for its community risk level, as determined by the Wayne County Health Department, to improve and the rate of COVID-19 tests bringing positive results to drop below 5%. Its board recently voted to start a blending learning program on March 1 that includes some students being in school buildings on certain days of the week.

Detroit school district Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, left, and Detroit International Academy for Young Women Principal Sakina Bolden toured Wednesday the school's new auditorium. Detroit learning centers are reopening, while the district waits for COVID-19 positivity rates to go below 5% before resuming in-person classes.

And in Ann Arbor, after months of mounting public pressure, the district approved a plan Wednesday to allow in-person learning for K-12 students two days a week starting March 25. The district will keep its virtual learning plan for families who want their child to learn from home.

Under the hybrid learning plan, which was approved 6-0 with one board member abstaining, preschool and kindergarten students will be the first to return the week of March 25.

First- and second-grade students will come back in Ann Arbor April 5 and grades 3-5 on April 12. Also starting on April 12, the district will bring back "small groups" of students in grades 6-12 in a phased return.

Some Ann Arbor schools parents were angry over the district's decision to remain virtual through January. About 100 other parents, educators and members of the grassroots advocacy group Ann Arbor Reasonable Return rallied for a return to school and had urged the district to abide by Whitmer's goal of reopening Michigan schools to in-person instruction by March 1.

Parent Emily Fanelli is happy she can send her two children, Dino, 6, and Lola, 9, into classrooms to meet their teachers for the first time in person.

"I'm excited that they have set some dates. I think they have heard the community is pretty upset," Fanelli said.

Superintendent Jeanice Swift said returning to school has always been a when, not an "if."

"We are working to re-establish trust and confidence in our schools. I'm asking everyone to join together for the sake of our children," Swift said during the meeting.

The Detroit Public Schools Community District also took a step toward returning to in-person classes Wednesday with the reopening of learning centers where students can log in to online lessons and get help with schoolwork.

In November, Michigan's largest school district temporarily halted in-person classes and moved to online learning amid rising COVID-19 cases in Detroit. 

Detroit district officials have said they hope to resume in-person learning by mid-March or when the city’s COVID-19 positive infection rate is solidly below 5%. Per the union contract, teachers will have the option to return to classrooms and employees will be required to retest for COVID before returning to work.

The governor's Wednesday press conference came as metrics for tracking the spread of the virus continue to trend in an optimistic direction and as negotiations continue in Lansing over how to spend billions of dollars in federal relief funding.

As of Monday, 1.9 million vaccine doses had been administered in Michigan, including 680,961 second doses, according to state data.

Michigan reported 5,695 new COVID-19 infections last week, the lowest weekly total for new infections since Sept. 20-26. Hospitalizations and the rate of tests bringing positive results also continued to decrease. There were 714 individuals hospitalized with confirmed cases of the coronavirus on Monday, a 52% drop from four weeks earlier.

Student Sonia Terry, left, of Highland Park, raises her hand to ask a question at the Detroit International Academy for Young Women on Wednesday morning, Feb. 24, 2021. The Detroit district is reopening learning centers where students can log in to online lessons and get help with schoolwork.

The Republican-controlled Michigan Senate is expected to vote later this week on a plan to spend federal COVID-19 relief money. Whitmer proposed spending $5.6 billion with $2 billion for schools, $225 million for economic development programs and $90 million for vaccine distribution.

The governor has called the relief money crucial to helping schools offer in-person instruction safely.

The House and Senate have advanced smaller spending bills but haven't yet reached consensus.

"Hopefully, we'll have something soon," House Appropriations Chairman Thomas Albert, R-Lowell, said Wednesday morning.

Amid fears of the coronavirus spreading inside school buildings, Whitmer and the Republican-controlled Legislature agreed in August to allow local districts to decide for themselves how to offer instruction this year. They could choose offering in-person classes, virtual classes or some combination, which has been called a hybrid model.

The compromise led to a patchwork of approaches and policies across the state.

Now, because of flattening COVID-19 numbers, vaccinations and strong mitigation efforts, more and more districts are reopening, said Michael Rice, Michigan's superintendent of public instruction.

"While we need to remain vigilant, we also need to offer families in all districts at a minimum an in-person option for their children," Rice said. "In-person instruction is better for so many of our kids, socio-emotionally and academically. Families deserve choices for their children’s education."