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Governor closes Michigan schools for academic year

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addresses the state Monday in Lansing. The governor said she signed laws with $150 million for the state’s coronavirus responses and vetoed $80 million in new spending. (Michigan Office of the Governor via AP, Pool)

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — More than 1.5 million Michigan students will not return to K-12 school buildings the rest of the academic year due to the coronavirus pandemic and instead will learn remotely, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered Thursday.

All public and private schools are more than halfway through a four-week shutdown ordered by Whitmer to combat the outbreak.

She said face-to-face instruction will not resume this spring. Districts will create distance learning programs, with flexibility on how they do so — whether it is online or with printed materials sent to homes or some other option.

Seniors will graduate and other children will advance to the next grade, as long as they were on track to do so before the closure.

The Democratic governor said it was a “difficult decision,” but her No. 1 priority is protecting against the spread of COVID-19.

“As a parent, I understand the challenge closing schools creates for parents and guardians across the state, which is why we are setting guidelines for schools to continue remote learning and ensuring parents have resources to continue their children’s education from the safety of their homes,” Whitmer said in statement issued before a scheduled press conference.

“There is no video chat or homework packet that can replace the value of a highly trained, experienced teacher working with students in a classroom, but we must continue to provide equitable educational opportunities for students during this public health crisis.”

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.

Traditional districts and charter schools will get their full state funding, because the state will forgive instruction time requirements and a waive a 75% attendance rule.

Students will not be penalized if they are unable to participate in an alternate learning plan.

The number of Michigan residents who have contracted COVID-19 crept toward 10,000 on Wednesday — one of the highest totals in the U.S. — while the state said hundreds of ventilators from the federal government would be quickly put into service, especially in hard-hit Detroit-area hospitals.

Detroit residents make up 26% of the state’s cases and 83 of its 337 coronavirus-related deaths. Mayor Mike Duggan credited an aggressive testing program, including a drive-up station at the former state fairgrounds, and predicted higher numbers each day.

He acknowledged that Detroit has a “serious problem” with infections, but he also said it was “disturbing” to read stories that it might be a hot spot because of poverty. Duggan noted that prosperous areas in Michigan, New York and Massachusetts are also struggling with COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

“Somebody brought the virus into this community early on,” the mayor said. “It spread in this community before we knew what was happening. And the places in this country that are getting hit are the places that were infected first.”

THE LATEST:

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases reported statewide jumped Wednesday by 1,719, bringing the total count to 9,334. Meanwhile, deaths rose by 78, which was a 30% increase. Only a few states have had more confirmed cases.

Of Michigan’s cases, 80% have been in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, which are in the Detroit area.

Nearly 150 prisoners and 25 staff members at various prisons have tested positive, the state Corrections Department said.

Meanwhile, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer declared a disaster and asked lawmakers to extend her previous emergency declaration by 70 days. The Legislature’s approval next week, needed to keep the declaration from expiring under state law, would allow the Democrat to stretch a stay-at-home order, although the order might not last for 70 days.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey said he backs an extension of the emergency, but 70 days is too long, and his support does not transfer to a “lengthy” continuation of the stay-home measure.

The governor has identified ventilators as a critical need. Half of the 400 breathing machines from the government will go to hospitals in southeastern Michigan, the state health department said.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. Older adults and people with existing health problems are among those particularly susceptible to more severe illness, including pneumonia.

A University of Washington model cited by the White House projects that Michigan could see a rapid increase in hospitalizations and fatalities, with 3,200 coronavirus-related deaths by May 1.

RARE SIDE EFFECT:

Henry Ford Health System reported that it had nearly 600 COVID-19 patients as of Wednesday morning. It also said a 58-year-old woman with the virus developed a rare form of encephalitis — acute necrotizing encephalitis — a central nervous infection that mostly afflicts children.

Dr. Elissa Fory, a Henry Ford neurologist, said all hospitals need to be aware.

“This complication is as devastating as severe lung disease,” Fory said.

FLINT CURFEW

The mayor of Flint ordered a 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew, starting Thursday, for 30 days. He said too many people have been gathering in store parking lots, raising the risk of spreading the virus.

“Don’t smoke and drink plenty of water. This curfew is so important,” said Dr. Lawrence Reynolds, a local physician who joined Mayor Sheldon Neeley.

ROADS:

Whitmer said construction projects on state roads will continue as long as contractors think it’s safe. A trade group, the Michigan Infrastructure & Transportation Association, had asked her to deem the work as nonessential. There will be no penalties if work is delayed due to COVID-19 safety measures and smaller crews. Contractors can request that a project be suspended.

AMAZON PROTEST:

Some workers protested conditions at an Amazon warehouse in Romulus, southwest of Detroit. The action occurred during a shift change. At least two positive COVID-19 cases have been confirmed there, workers said.

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