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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Trump urges schools to reopen during coronavirus. Michigan parents say no.

President Donald Trump may want schools to reopen this school year, but Michigan families disagree.

Parents of K-12 students in Michigan overwhelmingly support Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s decision to close K-12 classrooms for the year, according to a poll conducted recently by Bridge Magazine and Public Sector Consultants.

In the poll, 70 percent of parents surveyed agree with the decision to close classrooms for the remainder of the school year, compared to just 8 percent who opposed the closure. (Twenty-two percent did not express positive or negative views.)

The poll findings come a day after Trump, in a conference call with governors, reportedly suggested he’d like to see children back in classrooms across the country.

According to news reports on the conference call, Trump said states should "seriously consider" reopening schools and "maybe get going on it," noting that younger children seem to be faring better with coronavirus symptoms.

“Some of you might start thinking about school openings,” the president told governors, in an audio obtained by multiple news organizations. “Because a lot of people are wanting to have the school openings.

Those people apparently don’t include Michigan parents of school-age children. The Bridge/PSC poll, conducted April 13-20, before the president’s comments, asked 800 Michigan parents or guardians of K-12 students if they agreed with Whitmer’s decision to close Michigan schools for the remainder of the school year, which ends in June.

Support for the shutdown was bipartisan. 

Democrats in the poll supported closure 79 percent to 4 percent. 

Republicans supported closure 59 percent to 16 percent, and independents, 67 percent to 14 percent.

The poll had a margin of error of between 2.5 percent and 3.5 percent.

“This data would suggest that when it comes to the risk COVID-19 represents to families with school-aged children, Michiganders are erring on the side of caution by supporting the current posture of having their students learn remotely,” said Tim Dempsey, vice president of Public Sector Consultants. 

Currently, 43 states have closed K-12 schools for the remainder of the school year, with several others weighing extensions of shorter closure orders, or leaving it up to local school districts to make that decision.

Michigan public and private K-12 schools initially were ordered closed for three weeks beginning March 16. On April 2, the closures were extended for the remainder of the school year.

Trump suggested Monday that schools might be able to reopen because COVID-19 generally hasn’t been as lethal in children as in adults over 65 and adults with underlying health conditions. “In terms of what this vicious virus goes after, young people seem to do very well,” Trump said.

The Whitmer administration did not immediately respond to a question from Bridge as to whether the Michigan governor was on the call with Trump and would be willing to comment.

Amber McCann, spokesperson for Republican Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, told Bridge in an email “there has been no discussion of reopening schools for this school year.  Schools have worked hard to develop distance learning plans for students to complete this year.”

The presidential suggestion received a cool reception among some Michigan education leaders interviewed by Bridge.

“I think it is too early to consider reopening schools,” said Scott Menzel, superintendent of Washtenaw Intermediate School District. “As much as we would love to be able to welcome students back into our buildings, there are still too many unknowns. For the WISD and the medically fragile students we serve, the risk is too high.”

While children generally do not get seriously ill with the coronavirus, they can spread the virus to other, more at-risk members of their families.

The Trump administration’s own plan for restarting the economy doesn’t call for reopening schools until phase two, after some other businesses have successfully reopened and there are no signs of a second surge of the pandemic, which has killed more than 57,000 Americans.

On Friday, Whitmer extended the state’s stay-at-home order until May 15, while also announcing an easing of rules on some businesses and recreation.

“I am hopeful that the measured approach to re-opening the economy will work and that we won’t see a spike in infection rates,” Menzel said. “If that trend continues during the summer, then the potential for returning to school [in the fall] seems more likely.  However, the data should be what drives these decisions.”

The Michigan Department of Education “strongly supports the governor’s executive order” to close classrooms for the remainder of the school year and switch to remote learning, according to MDE spokesperson Martin Ackley.

Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Community District, the largest district in the state and in the city hit hardest by the pandemic, likewise said Tuesday that “considering the impact COVID has had on the city,  it would not be safe to return all students and employees back to face-to-face instruction until the fall.”

Reopening schools also is a non-starter for David Campbell, superintendent of Kalamazoo Intermediate School District.

“That decisionhas been made by executive order,” Campbell said. “We are now implementing the Continuity of Learning Plans and trying to teach kids remotely.”

Parental sentiment on other issues relating to Michigan school closings will be addressed in upcoming Bridge reports.

RESOURCES:

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