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Whitmer gives COVID-19 update, opposes making schools offer in-person classes

LANSING — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was unreceptive Tuesday to Republican-passed legislation that would require public schools to offer in-person instruction to students in kindergarten through fifth grade amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The Democratic governor’s comments came after several districts recently announced that they would start the academic year solely with distance learning regardless of whether Whitmer moves all of Michigan into phase five of her reopening plan. Under phase four, in-person classes are permitted. Schools are supposed to open for in-person instruction under phase five with fewer required safety protocols.The governor said parts of the state House plan now pending in the Senate have “merit,” but “other pieces are modeled after the DeVos plan to force schools to put kids back in the classroom. We’re going to be focused on the science.”

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has said that students should be in the classroom every day if their families want and that any alternative would fail students and taxpayers. President Donald Trump threatened to try to withhold federal funding for schools that do not resume in-person classes, but last week he softened his stance and acknowledged that some schools may need to delay their reopening this fall.

“We can’t precisely dictate for all 800 districts precisely what a day looks like,” said Whitmer, saying debate must happen at the local level.

Whitmer used a COVID-19 news conference — her first in nearly two weeks — to call again for a national mask-wearing mandate and to criticize the Republican-led U.S. Senate for proposing no new funding for states and cities in the next round of relief aid. Michigan is facing a multibillion-dollar hole in the budget year that starts in October, and schools could begin instruction without knowing their state funding.

Budget director Chris Kolb denounced the Senate proposal as “woefully lacking,” while Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Sandy Baruah said every major business organization in the state has urged the congressional delegation to include additional assistance for state and local governments.

“This is not a political or regional perspective,” Baruah said.

Michigan’s seven-day average of cases was about 682, which was an increase of 121 from two weeks earlier. Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive, said the relative plateau in cases after a sharper rise previously, combined with steady, low death and hospitalization rates, are “all very good signs.”

The Grand Rapids region, the only area deemed as “high risk” in recent weeks, was upgraded to “medium-high risk” on Tuesday. Khaldun expressed concern, however, that there has continued to be a higher percentage of people testing positive for the virus despite increased testing.

Local health departments last week identified 78 new outbreaks, defined as when tracers determine that a close contact of an infected person also is infected.

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