Michigan parents petition Whitmer to mandate school openings

Michigan parents petition Whitmer to mandate school openings

Some Michigan school districts remained largely remote in the face of evidence that in-person learning is safe.

An open letter signed by more than 1,200 Michigan parents calls on Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and state lawmakers to mandate that “every district must provide five full days of in-person school per week” for the 2021-22 school year.

“[W]e have lost faith in our local districts to prioritize children in their decision-making, to align their decisions with public health guidance from the Centers for Disease Control, and to follow the accumulating evidence about the modest risks associated with the resumption of in-person learning,” the letter states.

While the majority of Michigan public school districts returned to fully in-person classes, several of the largest districts remained primarily virtual until the end of the school year (or very close to it).

The Ann Arbor Public Schools district has become so adept at dragging its feet on reopening that concerned parents and community members launched an entire website to advocate “for evidence-based decision making that is centered around the needs of students and not politics” and “a reasonable approach to reopening schools.”

“One year into the pandemic, we have seen school districts around the country open for in-person learning while also adopting measures to protect the health and safety of teachers and school personnel,” the Michigan open letter says. “Yet many Michigan school districts have not done the same.”

In August 2020, Michigan lawmakers passed and Whitmer signed an appropriations measure providing districts with “maximum flexibility” to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic during the 2020-21 academic year.The open letter argues “it would be inappropriate to give districts the same flexibility for the coming year.” Instead, the letter petitions state lawmakers to condition school funding on all public schools being open five days a week for students who wish to attend.

Jeanice Swift, superintendent of Ann Arbor Public Schools, has said the district will be fully in-person this fall – but parents could be forgiven for having doubts. The district’s track record of stalling delayed most students’ return to school until May 3 – even then only for half-days twice a week.

“[W]e are worried that some school districts, if given the option, may refuse to provide five-days-a-week, in-person learning in the fall, long after every teacher has had a chance to receive the vaccine,” the letter adds.

Other states, like Florida, re-opened all public schools in fall 2020, and data suggests openings have made little contribution to viral spread. Nationally, a study noted that “there has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission.”

Further controversy broke out in Ann Arbor recently when a FOIA request uncovered disparaging and dismissive comments about parents supportive of school reopening made by a trustee on the Ann Arbor School Board. Rebecca Lazerus, the trustee, complained to her fellow board members in an email with a litany of insults, calling the parents “uneducated,” “self-serving,” and “shameless in seizing the global pandemic” as an “excuse to point fingers at local school districts.”

Moreover, Lazarus implied – without evidence – that the parent group had a secret agenda to undermine public schools in order “to use public educational dollars for private use,” referencing educational choice options many parents turned to in the face of public school closures.

“Does Trustee Lazarus want to keep schools closed in the fall, contrary to what [the superintendent] keeps saying? Because that’s the only reason I can see for her anger,” responded parent Nicholas Bagley, a law professor at the University of Michigan and the drafter of the open letter. “But it’s also the reason we need the Michigan legislature to act.”

On June 3, Bagley and fellow Ann Arbor parent Sara Talpos wrote that some Michigan districts – including Ann Arbor, Kalamazoo, and Lansing – have “prioritized hyperbolic fears of COVID-19 over the needs of kids and their families.”

“Often, it seems that the districts don’t care what the evidence says,” Bagley and Talpos wrote in The Detroit News, “insisting on something close to zero risk – a metric that, if adopted, would mean schools should shut for the flu.”

Meanwhile, Michigan’s largest school district, Detroit, reopened for in-person learning in March after being closed since November 2020. But the return was short-lived, as Detroit schools closed again on March 26. They reopened once again on May 24 for the remaining month of the school year.

School closures throughout the United States have had devastating effects on children’s academic and emotional development, with students in low-income and disadvantaged communities disproportionately impacted.

For some parents, homeschooling and private options have become the path forward as public schools failed to deliver on in-person learning. “We decided to opt out. When decisions were being made last summer, and after our spring experience, we decided this was not going to work for us,” recalled Ann Arbor parent Pamela Stom.

“We will probably continue homeschooling for the next year at least, but we may even continue to keep homeschooling after that,” she added. “We’ve discovered the freedom to step away and have felt empowered by taking back control of our children’s education.”

While Whitmer has called for months for schools to re-open, she continues to remain cautious in her approach to the pandemic. Recently, the governor vetoed a bill that would have exempted school graduations from capacity restrictions imposed by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services or by local governments.

Pressure is mounting on lawmakers in Lansing to ensure that all Michigan schools are fully open for the coming school year. Whitmer and state lawmakers should work together to guarantee statewide in-person learning without delay. Michigan parents and students deserve confidence and certainty as the upcoming school year approaches.

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