Whitmer urges virtual school classes, no youth sports for two weeks

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Beth LeBlanc and Jennifer Chambers, The Detroit News
·7 min read
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Apr. 9—LANSING — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is strongly urging Michigan's high schools to suspend in-person classes and youth sports for two weeks as well as asking diners to avoid eating at restaurant indoors for the same period to combat a surge in cases and hospitalizations.

But Whitmer avoided having her state health department director issue new epidemic orders to require the actions.

"We all need to go above and beyond the rules that are already in place," she said.

The governor also asked people to avoid indoor gatherings in general and pushed for more people to get one of the three COVID-19 vaccines, noting a stead supply and demand could mean the state reaches its goal of 70% vaccination of individuals 16 years and older by mid-May at the earliest. Through Wednesday, the state had vaccinated 24.4% or 1.97 million of the adult population.

"To be very clear, these are not orders, mandates or requirements," Whitmer said of her requests to schools, athletes and restaurants. "A year in, we all know what works and this has to be a team effort. We have to do this together. Lives depend on it."

The suggestion was criticized by some schools and the restaurant association, which argued there is little proof outbreaks are occurring as a result of indoor dining.

The Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association said in a Friday statement that Whitmer's suggestion to stop indoor dining was "misguided" and didn't "track" with outbreak data showing restaurant patrons were involved with 0.3% of Michigan's nearly 1,000 outbreaks.

"As we approach a herd immunity in Michigan that will transform the hospitality industry for the better, it is incumbent on us all to act with common sense and proper precaution," said Justin Winslow, president and CEO of the association. "But the continued scapegoating of the restaurant industry without proof or reliable data won't make it come any sooner."

Several Michigan school districts have already opted to go remote after their spring break. This includes the Detroit Public School Community District, which took a two week pause that started Monday and runs through April 16 during which all students learn at home virtually.

Other districts such as Dearborn, Warren Consolidated School district and Utica Community Schools sent their students into remote learning for one week after spring break.

Steve Matthews, superintendent of Novi Community Schools, said he is not voluntarily moving his high school students into remote learning and says schools are unfairly being blamed for COVID-19 spread.

"My thoughts are that if it's that serious, why are they asking us to do it voluntary? If it really is an emergency, it should be mandated by the governor, the health department, by somebody," Matthews said.

The district has 1,000 students in person at Novi High School every day. About 75 students are in quarantine, including 23 who are positive, 15 who have a pending test and 40 who are in quarantine as close contacts.

"We have done what they have asked. We have created as much social distancing as possible. We are spreading out people on buses in lunchrooms. Students use wipes every period. Seventy-five students in a quarantine does not constitute an emergency," Matthews said.

A two-week pause would put students out of school during statewide mandatory assessments next week, Matthews noted, including the SAT and M-STEP, which begins on Tuesday.

But state Superintendent of Public Instruction Michael Rice supported Whitmer's calls to action.

"Michigan educators, students, and families have risen to the challenge over the past year, and I am confident they will continue to do what is needed to help save lives as we keep fighting the pandemic," Rice said in a statement provided by Whitmer's office. "I support the recommendations of the governor. I urge schools to contribute the next two weeks toward the common good of our state and the health of our residents."

Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun warned residents that just because an activity is allowed does not mean it's safe. People should still avoid indoor dining or gatherings and should get tested and quarantine if they feel sick, she said.

Khaldun warned that Michigan's case count is so high that it's causing delays in contact tracing and outbreak tracking and causing hospitals to prepare for surge capacity. Some of the state's current data is likely an undercount, she said.

"Because we are seeing so many cases a day, our public health system is overwhelmed," Khaldun said.

On the vaccine front, Whitmer made clear that vaccinating 70% of people 16 years and older by mid-May is a rosy scenario.

"Assuming there are no set backs and everything goes as we are led to believe that it will go and we don't have any lulls in terms of demand, which is another big if, we could theoretically by the middle of May be to a place where were at 70%," she said.

The governor admitted the chances of reaching the goal are "probably not highly likely." There are "high probabilities" of a "glitch" happening or health officials needing "to do more work to earn the confidence of the public to get more people to be interested in getting vaccinated.

"But at this juncture, if all of those things happen well in advance of or at least by the 4th of July, we could hit that 70% number," she said.

Friday's press conference came two days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director pushed for stronger restrictions to slow the surge in Michigan, which continues to lead the nation in new cases by population.

Director Rochelle Walensky encouraged restrictions in Michigan that included a pause on indoor dining, which is currently at 50% capacity, and tighter rules around youth sports, which are currently allowed with masks and testing. Walensky is the appointee of President Joe Biden, for whom Whitmer campaigned in the fall election.

Whitmer has said the surge in Michigan is not due to a lack of policy but instead because of variant prevalence, mobility and lack of compliance with existing policies.

Michigan continues to lead the nation for the highest number of new cases by population and, as of Wednesday, ranked 12th for its number of COVID deaths and is tied for 28th for the highest death rate in the last seven days.

Michigan Medicine in Ann Arbor, Henry Ford Health System in Detroit and the Ascension Michigan health system based in Warren have all begun to limit or delay non-essential surgeries as hospital loads increase. As of Wednesday, the state reported 3,549 adults were hospitalized with the coronavirus, a 274% jump from one month earlier when there were 950 hospitalizations.

On Thursday, Michigan added 7,819 new cases and 73 deaths from COVID-19 bringing the state total to 723,297 cases and 16,400 deaths since the virus was first detected in March 2020.

Dearborn Public Schools Superintendent Glenn Maleyko said he is not moving his three high schools into remote learning on Monday, after the district consulted with Wayne County health officials on data this week and determined there is no reason to keep students out of school buildings.

The district had moved itself to remote learning from Tuesday to Friday this week after its spring break out of caution, Maleyko said.

"Right now my plans are to go back on Monday. We did the week. I looked at our data. We are in hybrid model. Our model is working because of the mitigation," he said.

The district has 6,000 high school students spread out at three schools. At Fordson High school, which normally enrolls 2,800 students, about 1,000 have chosen in-person learning. The 1,000 students are broken into two groups so on any school day only 500-600 students are in the building at once.

"I don't have any cases from spread in our schools. It's only been community spread where students at home are self-reporting," Maleyko said. "Kids are wearing masks. It's not an issue."

The superintendent said he supported the state's waiver to cancel state exams and says students should not be taking state tests during the pandemic.

"They aren't going to reliable anyway," Maleyko said of the tests.

eleblanc@detroitnews.com

Staff Writers Sarah Rahal and Melissa Nann Burke contributed.