President Donald J. Trump talks with members of the press on the South Lawn of the White House Wednesday, July 17, 2019, prior to boarding Marine One to begin his trip to North Carolina. | Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead via Flickr Public Domain
President Donald Trump and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer both have their own ideas about what it means to reopen schools safely this fall during a global pandemic.
On June 30, Whitmer unveiled her “Return to School Roadmap,” which included four plans for schools, ranging from in-person instruction to remote online learning, depending on which phase of COVID-19 recovery that area of the state is in. Schools in Michigan were closed in March for the remainder of the 2019-20 academic year.
However, Trump is adamant that governors need to reopen all schools for traditional in-person learning for the 2020-21 school year. On Wednesday, he threatened to withhold federal funds if they decide against that.
“The Dems think it would be bad for them politically if U.S. schools open before the November Election, but is important for the children & families. May cut off funding if not open,” Trump tweeted.
Peter Spadafore, Associate Executive Director for Advocacy and Communications at Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators (MASA), said that if the Trump administration does withhold funding, Congress will need to step in and take action against that.
“What the administration in Washington, D.C, is talking about is withholding federal funding from school districts and states that are making decisions that they believe are in the best interest of the health and safety of their staff and students. That’s just irresponsible policy,” Spadafore said.
“I can’t imagine a world in which Washington withholds funding from schools for following health and safety protocols without it ending in a lawsuit,” he added.
By reopening schools to full capacity, education leaders are concerned that it will be difficult to limit the spread of COVID-19, especially among teachers and staff who are older. With large classes, shared cafeterias and school gyms, implementing strict social distancing will be a challenge. And without federal assistance, most schools won’t have enough money to spend on safety measures, including masks, hand sanitizer and extra cleaning.
Whitmer and many other education leaders in Michigan have been vocal about the need for additional federal funding in order to keep schools afloat during the pandemic-induced recession.
The state’s School Aid Fund — which primarily funds K-12 education — is estimated to fall short by $1.2 billion, which would be a cut of about $650 per student. For the 2021 fiscal year starting Oct. 1, the School Aid Fund is expected to see another $1.1 billion shortfall.
Even with the $880 million supplemental spending plan Whitmer signed for the Fiscal Year 2020 budget last week, which included federal funds for schools, universities and community colleges, local governments and hazard pay for teachers, schools will likely just be breaking even. That’s because additional safety measures carry a hefty price tag.
“I think the supplemental helps us get ready for opening, but I don’t think it really is going to be the long-term solution that we need,” Spadafore said. “School next year is going to be more expensive than school this year, so breaking even on the budget is not going to work.”
As Trump puts pressure on governors to reopen schools and threatens to cut desperately needed funding, his plan offers little guidance on how to do so.
While the plan released by the Trump administration is less comprehensive than Whitmer’s, it relies heavily on in-person learning for the sake of “child and adolescent development.”
On Tuesday, first lady Melania Trump said at a White House event, “Children’s mental health and social development must be as much of a priority as physical health.”
Whitmer’s plan states that their decisions on required, strongly recommended and recommended policies rely on “the most up-to-date scientific data available on COVID-19.”
“While there is much that we have learned about the disease already, there is also, unfortunately, much that remains unclear,” the plan states. “In the instance where a clear consensus has not been reached, or scientific opinion remains divided, we have decided to err on the side of caution with our staff and students’ safety as our utmost priority.”
Right now, six of Michigan’s geographic regions are in Phase 4 of Whitmer’s MI Safe Start plan to reopen the economy, with most businesses open, while the Upper Peninsula and the Traverse City region are in Phase 5, in which gyms, theaters and other higher-risk facilities are open.
Under the governor’s plan, schools in regions of the state that are in phase 4 will open for in-person instruction with more stringent required safety protocols and northern Michigan schools, as long as they remain in phase five, will open for in-person instruction with moderate required safety protocols.
The Upper Peninsula has seen an uptick in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks, which Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services chief medical executive and chief deputy director for health, says is “the highest level of cases throughout the entire pandemic.” The Grand Rapids area also has seen an uptick in cases.
If COVID-19 cases continue to rise in certain regions, Whitmer could reinstate restrictions there.
If any region of the state returns to Phase 1, 2 or 3, schools in those regions will not open for in-person learning and the instruction will be done remotely.
In Phase 1 and 2, the stay-home order is in effect and all schools and non-essential businesses, such as bars, restaurants and gyms are closed. In Phase 3, the strict stay-home order is lifted, but residents are encouraged to continue distancing and only essential businesses and low-risk non-essential businesses are allowed to open.
In late June, Michigan Republicans rolled out their own reopening plan for schools, which included $1.3 billion in federal funding to Michigan schools.
The GOP’s plan also included a number of policy recommendations, such as redefining “attendance” to mean that a student is engaged in instruction, rather than physically present, requiring schools to implement benchmark assessments to determine where students need additional help and limiting the use of snow days to encourage remote instruction when needed.
The plan also requires in-person learning in the fall for students in kindergarten through fifth grade.
Trump’s plan does not mention the possibility of remote learning.
Instead it relies on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) safety guidelines for social distancing and sanitizing. However, the CDC states that reopening full-sized, in-person classes puts students and teachers at high risk.
The lowest-risk plan the CDC offers would be that schools offer completely online classes.
The CDC’s middle-ground recommendation is to offer small, in-person classes where students stay together and with the same teacher throughout the school day.
Despite citing CDC guidelines in his reopening plan, Trump has been critical of the agency’s recommendations.
“I disagree with @CDCgov,” Trump tweeted. “While they want them open, they are asking schools to do very impractical things. I will be meeting with them!!!”
Vice President Mike Pence said the CDC would issue new guidance on reopening schools next week, but on Thursday afternoon, CDC Director Robert Redfield said the agency will not be making revisions to the guidelines.
Trump and Whitmer have had a contentious relationship since the early days of the pandemic, as Michigan and other states were forced to bid against each other for personal protection equipment (PPE). Now as next school year approaches, it is clear the two leaders are once again at odds, this time on school reopenings.
Whitmer has been adamant in interviews this week that she will not send students back to school until it’s safe.
“I want to make this clear — I will not send our kids and our education workforce into our schools unless it is safe to do so, plain and simple,” Whitmer tweeted Thursday evening. “I have made decisions based on science and facts to keep Michiganders safe since the beginning, and won’t stop now.”
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