Republican lawmakers’ politically motivated withholding of federal funds for safe reopening of schools is an immoral – and legally questionable – stance amid a COVID-19 surge in Michigan that is among the highest in the nation, four State School Board members said this week.
The situation is especially stark in traditionally marginalized communities of color, which have borne the brunt of the pandemic and face greater needs for facility upgrades and protective equipment to ensure health and safety of children and school employees in reopening buildings.
“We are here calling on our government, our legislature, to decide today to tell us who they are at war with and who are they fighting for,” said Pamela Pugh, State Board vice president. “Are they at war with COVID or are they at war with our children?”
GOP leaders in the House and Senate have attached strings to hundreds of millions of dollars in COVID relief funding sent by Congress in December – withholding disbursement of more than $840 million unless Gov. Gretchen Whitmer relinquishes executive power to close schools and shut down athletic events in a health crisis.
The Legislature also is refusing to supply districts with lower Title I enrollment (who didn’t benefit as greatly from federal relief fuding) up to $450 per-pupil in additional state funding if they did not offer at least 20 hours of in-person learning by March 22 – in effect, punishing communities devastated by the pandemic by denying them the money needed to fund safety equipment and protocols.
“Our schools right now are paralyzed and unable to put processes in place that could help them to mitigate factors in the impact of COVID at a most critical time,” said Pugh, who is a public health advisor and advocate.
Communities of color, long affected by racial health disparities, have been disproportionately harmed by COVID-19. In addition, vaccination rates in BIPOC communities are lower than their white counterparts by wide margins.
“We are questioning the legality for the procedures and the legislation that is being used to coerce our children into school, and that is trying to remove the powers from the Department of Health and Human Services to determine the safety of our schools,” Pugh said.
Pugh was joined at Thursday’s press conference by fellow board members Ellen Lipton, Jason Strayhorn and Tiffany Tilley.
Tilley, a longtime Detroit-area advocate for education and social justice, said everyone wants in-person school but not at the expense of the health of children, families, or educators. School districts need time to prepare, she said.
“They need time to adjust. They need time to get the classrooms and the school buildings in order, and we don’t need to push for our kids to be back in classrooms when the schools are not equipped for this yet.”
Schools in disadvantaged communities have been allowed to fall into disrepair by decades of systemic state underfunding, said Lipton, who is an attorney and a former state representative. Now those same districts are being punished for a slower reopening than districts in wealthier parts of the state.
“We say that we believe in local control and yet the legislature has pulled the rug out once again from local school districts,” Lipton said. “There were many school districts that were starting to onboard their children into in-person instruction as they were able to manage class sizes, as they were able to manage ventilation and reworking HVACs or providing clean drinking water.”
The board members were joined at the press conference by Angela Waters-Austin, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Michigan and CEO of One Love Global; Karen Weaver, former Flint mayor and interim director of the African American Mayors Association; and Tashmica Torok, founding co-director of the Firecracker Foundation.
“In Michigan, in the face of the most horrific public health crisis, our government is using our health, and even worse, our children’s health and well-being as bargaining chips, as tools to negotiate our legislators’ power and control,” Pugh said.