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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

MI news coalition urges Gov. Whitmer to identify school COVID-19 outbreaks

More than 30 Michigan news and government transparency organizations delivered a letter (below) to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Tuesday urging rapid release of school related COVID outbreak details as students and educators start the new school year. 

In-person/in-school instruction is an option in many schools, yet through August, state and local health departments failed to publicly identify schools or colleges where more than a dozen COVID-19 outbreaks were traced. 

Last week, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services told Bridge Michigan it would eventually release the names of schools where outbreaks are identified once it transforms its computer system to capture that information – but that could potentially happen weeks from now. 

Likewise, local health departments across the state have not yet released school COVID details. Michigan media organizations have filed numerous Freedom of Information requests to gain access to school COVID outbreak records, but FOIA requests often take weeks or months, and do not supply the real-time notice that parents need to decide whether to return their children to classroom settings. 

So far, the governor’s office has offered little reaction beyond spokespersons’ claims last week that they were “reviewing” the situation. 

“Students, parents and educators deserve way more urgency and transparency than this,” said Center for Michigan and Bridge Michigan President & CEO John Bebow. “Parents and educators face very difficult choices in assuring safety for students and families in this school year.  The news media, educators, and families shouldn’t have to beg state government to clearly, fully, and consistently alert local communities to COVID outbreaks in schools. We ask the governor to immediately address and fix this situation.”
 

Dear Governor Whitmer,

We are writing to respectfully but urgently request you immediately marshal the resources of state government to compile and publicly release, on a consistent ongoing basis, vital public information regarding school related COVID outbreaks.

Right now, across this great state, parents, educators and students are wrestling with whether to proceed with virtual or in-school learning in the face of the pandemic. For many families, this is among the most difficult decisions in this extraordinarily difficult year. 

Yet, to date, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and local health departments have failed to provide the public with essential details on the exact location and severity of school related COVID outbreaks. This month, on the verge of the new school year, MDHHS announced:

  • The existence of 14 school-related COVID outbreaks statewide well over a week ago. Since then we’ve learned of several more via social media and local word of mouth.
  • Shortcomings in the state’s COVID tracking systems, including the system’s current inability to track exactly where these school-related outbreaks occur.
  • A pledge to eventually release school-related COVID outbreak details once the tracking system is fixed and county health departments begin submitting to the state more details, including exact locations of COVID-impacted schools. MDHHS has indicated these fixes could take weeks.    

In the meantime, county health departments…the first level of COVID reporting and tracking, continue to refuse media requests to release essential school-related outbreak details such as names and locations of impacted schools and number of known COVID cases. County health departments have cited confusion, lack of direction from state government, and a desire to protect schools from COVID-related stigma.

Respectfully, school-related COVID outbreak information belongs to the taxpayers who pay for it,  especially parents with school-aged children. It is the duty of state and local health departments to protect public health. This includes the duty to inform the public of health risks transparently, rapidly, and fully — including the existence of COVID outbreaks in schools at the beginning of this very challenging school year. 

Media organizations are filing Freedom of Information Act requests, but this is no time for drawn-out transparency battles. 

We call on you to immediately provide Michigan families, students, educators and taxpayers with the transparency they deserve. State government has more than 14,000 employees devoted to health and human services. Beyond the weeks-long fix of state computer tracking systems, we call on you to marshal state government resources to immediately, fully, consistently, and continually release school-related COVID outbreak details — including the names of impacted schools, their locations, and number of cases — to the full Michigan public. 

In closing, we respectfully remind you that, at the beginning of the pandemic, you declared professional news-gathering organizations an essential public service. We can think of few media public services more essential and urgent in this moment than informing local communities on COVID outbreaks in schools. 

Sincerely,

The Michigan School-Related COVID Outbreak Transparency Coalition
 

Bill Speer, Publisher
Alpena News

Bradley Massman, Editor
Big Rapids Pioneer

Stephen Henderson, Project Executive
BridgeDetroit

John Bebow, President and CEO
Bridge Michigan and the Center for Michigan

Chris Huckle, Publisher
Cadillac News

Kelley Root, Executive Editor
Crain’s Detroit Business

Teresa Brandell, Publisher
Crawford County Avalanche

Peter Bhatia, Editor and Vice President
Detroit Free Press

Gary Miles, Editor and Publisher
The Detroit News

Julie Stafford, Publisher
(Greenville) Daily News

John Minnis, Publisher
Grosse Pointe News

Eric Hamp, Publisher
Houghton Lake Resorter and Roscommon County Herald-News

Eric Young, Editor
Huron Daily Tribune

Tanya Whitaker, Editor
The (Dundee) Independent

Stephanie Angel, Editor
Lansing State Journal, Livingston County Press and Argus, Battle Creek Enquirer, Port Huron Times-Herald

John Elchert, Publisher
The Leelanau Enterprise

Mike Reitz, Executive Vice President
Mackinac Center for Public Policy

Jeff Payne, Managing Editor
The Macomb Daily

Lisa McGraw, Vice President
Michigan Coalition for Open Government

James Tarrant, Executive Director
Michigan Press Association

Kate Hessling, Editor
Midland Daily News

John Hiner, Vice President of Content
MLive

Craig Barnt, Publisher and Editor
The Pinconning Journal

Larry Sobczak, Publisher and Editor
Record-Washington Township

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