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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

With ‘school policy in chaos,’ coronavirus delays debate in Michigan Senate

LANSING — Michigan lawmakers debating how schools should reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic are grappling with their own shutdown after a Republican senator contracted COVID-19.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and House Speaker Lee Chatfield on Monday canceled sessions and committee hearings for the week following a positive test for Sen. Tom Barrett, a Charlotte Republican and critic of Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s pandemic orders.

The temporary shutdown will postpone Senate consideration of House-approved legislation that would require schools to offer in-person instruction to students in kindergarten through fifth grade this fall. 

With school restart dates fast approaching, Shirkey, R-Clarklake, had hoped to complete negotiations and send the legislation to Whitmer by Thursday. Instead, a week after Barrett attended committee hearings in Lansing, Shirkey wants lawmakers to stay away from the Capitol and get tested for COVID-19. 

“Work will continue on the legislation, but any contemplated floor action will be delayed,” Shirkey spokesperson Amber McCann told Bridge.

Michigan schools have started to announce restart plans and do not need the Legislature to overhaul education policy. However, school administrators are asking for new flexibility to meet state mandates amid the global pandemic. 

It’s not clear if the Republican-led Senate will support the House provision requiring districts to offer an in-person instruction for all K-5 students. McCann did not respond when asked if Shirkey supports that provision, but the majority leader said last week he was “dismayed” Grand Rapids Public Schools does not plan to resume classroom instruction this fall. It is among large districts, including Ann Arbor and Lansing, planning to begin the year with remote learning and online-only classes.

Critics of the House legislation contend Barrett’s positive test is a cautionary tale. 

If a single case of COVID-19 can shutdown the Legislature, what happens when students or teachers catch the virus this fall?

“This is the exact reason why school policy is in chaos,” said Sen. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield, who got a COVID-19 test on Monday morning because he interacted with Barrett less than two weeks ago. “If one student tests positive, you’ve interacted with people who have interacted with that person, who have interacted with that person.”

Public education advocacy groups are almost uniformly opposed to the House legislation. They’re asking lawmakers to help clarify pandemic policies — not impose new requirements — for districts that are already developing plans for multiple COVID scenarios, as required under an executive order Whitmer signed in late June.

“The last thing any school needs is the Legislature coming in at the 11th hour and making some fundamental policy shifts in terms of what schools even need to do to reopen,” said Robert McCann, executive director for the Tri-County Alliance for Public Education, a group of superintendents from districts in Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties.

“The best thing [lawmakers] could do at this point is just stay home, quite frankly, if they’re not going to provide schools financial answers,” McCann added.

Beyond questions over restart policy, schools are preparing to begin the academic year without certainty on how much funding they will receive from the state, which faces a projected $3 billion budget shortfall for the fiscal year that begins in October. 

Whitmer and GOP legislative leaders used federal pandemic funding to avoid major spending cuts in the current fiscal year. But without more assistance from Congress, the state may soon be forced to scale back spending on schools and other budget priorities this fall. 

Officials in May predicted School Aid Fund revenue will decline by $1.2 billion, or about 7 percent. 

“This is the most uncertain time we’ve ever had, particularly from a budget perspective,” said Peter Spadafore, deputy executive director for external relations at the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators. “We don’t have any guidance from the Legislature on what per-pupil funding is going to be.”

Schools need policymakers to give them flexibility on how to count pupils this fall and conduct daily attendance during a pandemic, Spadafore said. It’s possible that Whitmer or the Michigan Department of Education could address those issues on their own, but public education advocates had hoped for legislative action this week. 

“The Legislature has made the right call in preserving health and safety guidelines” by cancelling session this week, Spadafore said. But that “further underscores the point of how tenuous opening plans are going to have to be about the firm line in the sand about in-person instruction,” he added.

The Senate Education and Career Readiness Committee had been scheduled to take up the House GOP’s “return to learn” proposal on Wednesday, which would have set up possible floor votes on Thursday.  

Barrett is the first Republican lawmaker to contract the virus in Michigan. Two state House Democrats tested positive in March and April. A third, state Rep. Isaac Robinson of Detroit, died from what his family suspects were complications from COVID-19.

Senate Republicans, who have a sizable majority in the upper chamber but not enough votes to require immediate effect on legislation, are debating the House package and whether to ease the requirement for schools to at least offer in-person classes to elementary age students.

Sen. Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth, conducted an informal poll on his Facebook page last week and said he heard a variety of parental preferences, ranging from those who want in-person instruction without masks to those who want online-only learning.

“School needs to start on time, and I’d like to see it in person,” Horn told Bridge. “Kids are less likely to transmit the virus, and they’re less likely to get sick from the virus, but it’s the teachers I really have concern for.”

School-age children can contract COVID-19, but early studies suggest they do so at lower rates. And those who do test positive tend to have no symptoms or only mild ones.

However, a recent study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points to the continued risk of outbreaks. More than 230 youths who attended an overnight summer camp in Georgia contracted the virus, according to the CDC. Fifty-one of the attendees were between the age of 6 and 10, while 180 were between the age of 11 and 17. 

"Correct and consistent use of cloth masks, rigorous cleaning and sanitizing, social distancing, and frequent hand washing strategies, which are recommended in CDC's recently released guidance to reopen America's schools, are critical to prevent transmission of the virus in settings involving children and are our greatest tools to prevent COVID-19," the CDC said in a statement. 

Whitmer this summer released a 63-page “return to school roadmap” that proposed rules and recommendations for the fall. She’s signalled a willingness to work with GOP leaders on school policy but has criticized some aspects of the proposal approved by the House last month.

“Some of the work that’s coming out of the Republcan-led Legislature has merit,” the governor said last week. “Other pieces of it are modeled after the [U.S. Education Secretary Betsy] Devos plan to force schools to put kids back in the classroom.”

Sen. Wayne Schmidt, a Traverse City Republican who chairs the K-12 budget committee, said Monday he will oppose any effort to tie classroom funding to in-person instruction but believes a return to classrooms is the best-case scenario for students who already fell behind when Whitmer closed school buildings in March. 

Schmidt would like to see “adjustments” to the House plan to ensure it gives schools “flexibility” to utilize in-person instruction, online learning or some combination of the two, he said.

“I certainly want to encourage students to go back to the classroom, of course with as little risk and as many protocols in place,” he said. “That’s balanced with what is most prudent based on what health officials are saying. We continue to weigh that out.”

Policymakers need to consider the health of teachers, not just students, according to Horn, who said he is concerned about the safety of older teachers and those with pre-existing conditions making them more susceptible to the virus.

Still, he said, schools could be creative. For instance, educators who face a greater risk from COVID-19 could use video technology to instruct students gathered in physical classrooms, Horn suggested. 

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