Michigan Gov. Whitmer creates panel to determine if, when students can return to school in fall

Panel made up of students, parents, educators, public health officials

A classroom is empty during the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced teachers and students to adjust to virtual learning. (CNN)

LANSING, Mich. – Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has formed a panel of students, parents and experts to help the coronavirus (COVID-19) task force if and when students will be able to return to school in the fall.

The Return to Learning Advisory Council will recommend how to safely, equitably and efficiently reopen schools for the fall. It is made up of students, parents, front line educators, administrators and public health officials, Whitmer said.

“It’s critical we bring together experts in health care and education, as well as students, educators and families to think about how and if it’s possible to safely return to in-person learning in the fall and how to ensure the more than 1.5 million K-12 students across Michigan get the education they need and deserve,” Whitmer said. “This panel will use a data-informed and science-based approach with input from epidemiologists to determine if, when and how students can return to school this fall and what that will look like.”

The governor closed school buildings to students on March 16. She later announced that buildings would remain closed for the duration of the school year.

The Task Force will now be informed by the Return to School Advisory Council. Here are some of the key issues schools must consider before opening:

  • Performing outreach to ensure the voices of stakeholders are included in the discussion of implementing the 2020-2021 school year in these challenging and uncharted circumstances.
  • Ensuring experts in public health and epidemiology are informing the discussion of safety returning to school.
  • Recommending actions to remove statutory/administrative barriers to delivering education before we are at Phase 6 of the MI Safe Start Plan.
  • Recommending actions to develop and improve systems for remedial support for students who experienced learning loss during the spring and summer.

“I want to thank all of the parents who have been burning the candle at both ends these last few months trying to help their kids stay on track with their schoolwork while juggling their other responsibilities during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic," Whitmer said. "I know it hasn’t been easy. My hope is that by organizing a formal process informed by public health experts, we can give school districts much-needed direction heading into the 2020-2021 school year.”

The panel will include more than 20 members, representing K-12 administrators and educators, health experts and community stakeholders.

State nears 5,000 COVID-19 deaths

Whitmer emphasized the serious threat still posed by the coronavirus (COVID-19) by comparing the number of the state’s deaths to the capacity of the Fox Theatre.

As of Friday, 4,825 deaths have been linked to the coronavirus in Michigan. The state also went over 50,000 total confirmed cases Friday, at 50,079.

The latest update comes a day after protesters took to the state Capitol and rallied against Whitmer’s extended stay-at-home order. It was the third such protest in the span of one month.

“I know many people in our state are feeling frustrated,” Whitmer said. “Some are scared. Some are angry. That’s understandable, but now is not a time for division for hatred, certainly not a time for violence. Now is a time for us to pull together. Now is a time for unity.”

Despite the protests, as well as legal threats from state legislators and a congressman, Whitmer is standing by her executive orders, which keep Michigan under a state of emergency and a stay-at-home order until May 28.

READ: Whitmer says gatherings of 10 people could be allowed on May 28

During her Friday briefing, Whitmer tried to emphasize that the coronavirus is still a threat to Michigan.

“I’ve been thinking about, ‘How can we drive home the story that is happening here, the stories that are not going to be called 5,000 lost lives?’” Whitmer said. “I want you to imagine as though you are standing on the stage of the Fox Theater in Detroit, which holds over 5,000 people. You look at that stage, and you know that nearly every empty chair represents a lost loved one, someone here in Michigan, someone with a story, someone with children or parents, someone with colleagues.

“These are people that were part of the fabric of our state. It’s so easy to look past this loss if it hasn’t hit close to home. It’s crucial for us to remember the families across Michigan who are still dealing with unbearable, unthinkable loss.”

Whitmer introduced religious leaders from around the state to speak and pray for unity.

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Derick is the Lead Digital Editor for ClickOnDetroit and has been with Local 4 News since April 2013. Derick specializes in breaking news, crime and local sports.